Dissonant Notes

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rescuing ‘The Fly’ by U2

Like every sane human being, I have my issues with U2. For years I hated them and the mere mention of their name made me rant and rave like a homeless drunk. All the while, though, I always knew that I loved Achtung Baby. I had bought it on cassette when it originally came out and I immediately thought of myself as a U2 fan. Then I heard The Joshua Tree and decided that perhaps they were the worst band I had ever heard in my life. Achtung Baby must have been a fluke. Best consign my liking of it to some dusty backroom in my mind alongside my liking of “Turtle Power” by Partners In Kryme. As the years rolled by my U2 diatribes began to bore even me, and come to think of it didn’t I also like ‘I Will Follow’? I picked up their first three albums and while I couldn’t say any is a masterpiece they still featured some fierce, streamlined post-punk. The Unforgettable Fire marked my stopping point as I could not stomach Bono’s wimoweh’s and on top of that ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ still made me nauseous. It was then that I returned to Achtung Baby. My love for it had doubled. Tripled even. It is all but flawless. Yet there is a song on the album I rate above all the others. I still remember with great clarity hearing it for the first time. I still remember buying the 7”. I’m talking about the album’s first single, ‘The Fly’.

It starts off with a burst of electric noise. Then some percussion. Then a riff. A riff of such brain-melting simplicity. A riff of such monstrous insistence. At some point singing must begin. Will the spell be broken?

“It’s no secret that the stars, are falling from the sky,
It’s no secret that our world, is in darkness tonight,
They say the sun is sometimes, eclipsed by a moon,
You know I don’t see you, when she walks in the room”

Achtung Baby marks the point when Bono’s words became as interesting as U2’s best music. It seems almost unfathomable that this is the same group who recorded The Joshua Tree. Gone is the roots rock Americana. In its place is European decadence. Gone is the empty pseudo-poetics and in its place we have playful ambiguity. Bono is actually playing around with irony. What separates Bono’s irony from that of somebody like Beck is the ambiguity. There is nothing ambiguous about Beck’s lyrics. They are meaningless. Your brain doesn’t have to do anything. If you’re in on the joke, all is well. On Achtung Baby, Bono uses irony to confuse, to instruct, to question. Not for cheap I-get-it laughs. You’ll notice I’m praising Bono as a lyricist here. Take a deep breath, agree, then move along.

The song grinds and pulsates. There comes a point in the song, right after the guitar solo and just as the falsetto vocals come in, when a noise emanates from The Edge’s guitar. What is that noise?

It is the sound of thermonuclear Ragnarök.

It is the sound of a Geiger counter after being dropped into Chernobyl.

It is a black hole giving birth to electricity.

It is the loneliest wolf howl processed through an I Am T-Pain application.

Have your U2 hate, but don’t deny when they get it right. So absolutely right. Their swirling vortex sucked in pop, rock, industrial, electronica, dance, hip-hop, and in doing so created something forward looking and essential. In doing so they created the best rock album of 1991. Yes, the best rock album of 1991.

Then comes Bono’s parting words.

“Little guy I’ve gotta go, yeah I’m runnin’ outta change,
There’s a lotta things, if I could I’d rearrange”

As well as being brilliant, these two lines manage to sum up both Bono’s arrogant messianic conceit and his genuine desire to actually do some good. ‘The Fly’ is monumental, and it remains one of the weirdest, most experimental sounding records ever to make Number One in the UK. To deny its brilliance is simply wrong.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Teenage Moods - Mood Ring (album review)

My days of actually going to gigs are on the wane, or so I would appear. I always preferred albums as the ultimate music experience. With an album, I could retreat to my room and soak it in rather than have some silly bastard jump on my toe repeatedly, or perhaps have some impossibly tall galoot stand right in front of me. As a result, I have lost touch with the Minneapolis music scene, though that’s assuming I was ever really in touch with it. Hip-hop is thriving, with Atmosphere and Doomtree the biggest names in town. In terms of the rest, my limited gaze sees only alt. country bands by the dozen travelling in opposite circles from the indie/synth/electronica acts that occasionally grace the pages of Pitchfork. It’s easy to miss the fact that there’s a thriving DIY/punk scene going on, with bands playing in the basements of punk-rock houses on a regular basis. Everybody in the scene knows where to find these basements but, with any luck, the police don’t. From this ragged scene comes Teenage Moods.

The lead singer/guitarist is Gordon. He looks like Stephen Pastel’s long-lost younger brother. I know Gordon from our days of working together at a local record store and the last time I bumped into him I asked for a copy of his new album with an eye to reviewing it. My blood ran cold for a second as I thought of the prospect of giving it a bad review. Could I look Gordon in the eye again? To make matters worse, I also know Jillian the bass player. We’re practically neighbours! Feeling like this was something that all music writers must face when dealing with the local scene, I prepared for the task at hand.

So how is Mood Ring, the newest album by Teenage Moods? It’s bloody good. I would call it pop-punk, but then you’ll think of Green Day or some shit like that. Start thinking something more along the lines of the bouncy songs Gerard Love used to write for Teenage Fanclub, stuff like ‘Long Hair’ or ‘Radio’. I have no idea whether anyone in the group listens to Teenage Fanclub, despite their name, but that’s what I get. I’d call it garage rock but then you might think of The Black Lips or some other musical atrocity. No, no, a thousand times no. This isn’t a bunch of trucker-hat wearing dudes trying to conjure up the festering spirit of rock and roll. Teenage Moods are too sprightly for that. I’d call it fun, but nowadays fun means a big dumb popcorn movie that makes your brain stop functioning (and charges you big money for the pleasure). Think Girls At Our Best! except with a guy singing, and with less production. Maybe think ‘About A Girl’ by Nirvana, only sped up. On second thought, don’t think anything like that. No, Teenage Moods aren’t breaking any new ground, but they’re also not bowing down to the past in any recognisable way, and they aren’t playing “spot the reference”. They’re blasting out super-catchy guitar pop that’s all over before you can even think about getting bored.

Opening number ‘Tulip Tattoo’ sets the tone and, in many ways, makes for a hard act to follow. Except that second track ‘Heavy Bunny’ is more than up to the task. For those without a sweet tooth, the sugar rush may initially be off-putting, but there’s enough grit and fuzz to make the whole thing seem filling as well as flavourful. Each song seems cut from a similar cloth but, man, that’s a nice cloth. At just nine songs, the album doesn't hang around too long, leaving you no choice but to play it all over again. It makes me feel like dusting off the old guitar and knocking out some pop songs for the hell of it, because Teenage Moods make it sound like a blast. ‘Yellow War’, ‘Mood Ring’, ‘Our Little Dirt’, everything feels right, everything feels poppy. Not only do I feel elated, I have to admit I feel a bit relieved. It seems I’ve survived unscathed from reviewing a Minneapolis band. Surely they can’t all be this good? If so, I really need to get out more.

Mood Ring was released on vinyl by the label 25 Diamonds, but you can also listen to the entire album then buy it for a mere $3 right here.

(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

8 Things You Should Avoid Saying in Response to a Music Review You Dislike

God bless the internet. This modern marvel has already changed our lives at least 774 times since last year and has also caused 321 paradigm shifts in the past week alone. As we mortals struggle to stay apace with these revolutions it sometimes helps, when adjusting to changing times, to set some rules so everybody feels more comfortable and secure while traversing the wastelands of the World Wide Web.

One of the biggest revolutions that the internet has brought about is the revolution in communication. Teenagers in Slough can now chat with 57-year-old perverts in Uzbekistan about what the other is wearing while also looking at hardcore pornography and contemplating their next chess move. Truly we live in special times. Nothing says communication, however, like the act of commenting on an internet music review. With the shield of anonymity users can unload their deepest thoughts and frustrations on the reviewer in question, spewing bile and self-righteous anger in all directions, before retreating to the comfort of fan-fiction chat sites. In the interests of fair-play, and in an attempt to avoid redundancy and boredom, I have compiled the following list of things to avoid when commenting on music reviews. If obeyed they should make the internet a livelier, more intelligent, and all around more fun place to spend your time. With these modest aims laid out, let us begin:

1. Don’t label the reviewer a hipster.

This goes to the top of the list as it is surely the single most overused put-down on both the internet and in everyday, non-electronic, communication. Please, don’t keep calling yourself uncool or not hip. It is unbecoming and, like labeling your tastes “eclectic”, it indicates self-delusion and conceitedness (plus it is pseudo-populist in a way that is scarily reminiscent of the way the Republican Party of America labels left-wing people “elitist”). Do you sit around all day in unwashed sweatpants re-watching Everybody Loves Raymond for weeks on end and still find yourself laughing at every joke? Clearly you don’t, and even if you did you would undoubtedly make a status update that said, “Sitting around in my sweatpants watching Everybody Loves Raymond for the third week straight. God, I’m such a nerd” just so everybody knew how self-consciously uncool you really were. Calling someone a hipster is just a pompous way of saying, “My tastes are not defined by what is cool. Sure, I like a lot of things that are considered cool but I listen to those things because I genuinely like them, not because it’s cool. Same with the way I dress, and the movies I like. I’m actually a nerd really”. In other words you are a self-deceiving halfwit who is playing up to the coolest and most obvious personality trait of the moment: being uncool.

2. Don’t say “You’re just jealous”.

This is stupid and sinks below even the cheapest pop-psychology. Apparently the driving force behind any dislike is jealousy? It doesn’t even make sense. If I write a bad review of Fleet Foxes it means I’m jealous of the fact that they are able to write insipid, pseudo-pastoral folk dirges? Or are you implying that it’s their success that I’m jealous of? Am I jealous of all success? What about the fact that I like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Nirvana and Outkast? Why wasn’t I jealous of their success? I’d feel embarrassed even putting this on the list if it didn’t crop up so often. Save your words for expressing something both original and worthwhile.

3. Don’t call someone a bad writer because their opinion differs from yours.

It takes a special kind of ego to imagine that anyone who holds a different opinion from theirs is automatically a bad writer. When asked to qualify such a statement the commentator may say, “The review just doesn’t work”, or some other such nonsense, but what they really want to say is, “This review is badly written because it dismisses an album that I think is really good”. Now it is possible for a badly written review to exist, but I often wonder why I never see complaints along the lines of, “I agree with almost everything this reviewer is saying but the way they said it was just awful”. Don’t kid yourself. You dislike the review because it tore apart, probably in a very convincing fashion, something you hold dear. At least have the decency to admit it.

4. Don’t say “Well what do you like?”

Do you really expect every negative review to provide you with examples of what the reviewer likes? When someone writes a positive review are they expected to offer examples of things they don’t like? Or perhaps the implication is that the reviewer doesn’t like anything? Would you notice if a reviewer only wrote positive reviews? Would you ask them if they dislike anything? When you read a review you should hope to god that the reviewer is giving an honest opinion. Worry when a reviewer is afraid of being negative. Chances are advertising concerns and fear of angering the musical act in question abated their anger. People are often assigned reviews and, considering the vast majority of music created at any one time is garbage, it makes sense that they will dislike a lot of it. Now quit asking stupid questions.

5. Don’t say “Who the fuck are you?” or “Well what is it you do?”

This one is truly pathetic. On the one hand, there is the implication that an opinion must only be respected if it comes hand-in-hand with financial success (so the commenter is a brown-nosing sycophant) and, on the other hand, there is the suggestion that the opinions of the reviewer are easily dismissed due to the fact that their life has been an unsuccessful one (so the commenter is a smug, conceited prick who gives higher prestige to those who show signs of societal success). The commenter here is trying to belittle the reviewer by using the basest psychological ploy of all, which is to undermine their opinion by undermining their entire life and purpose, all to defend the honour of a recording artist who probably knows nothing of this little commotion. It is the lowest kind of ad hominem attack, disregarded off-hand by all but the most idiotic.

6. Don’t call the reviewer a failed musician.

This relates to point 5 in that the commenter in question is trying to undermine the reviewer’s point by implying that they are a failure at life. Have you read Lester Bangs? He is generally considered one of the most gifted, articulate and all around life-altering music writers to sit down at a typewriter. His passion, wit, intelligence, anger and humanity spilled out over everything he wrote. To many he is still the standard against which one has to measure oneself to be considered a good writer. Guess what? He was a failed musician. Now put that in your pipe and choke on it you ignorant bastard. Calling the reviewer a failed musician is boring, predictable and downright embarrassing (and for the most part wrong). If somebody in your social circle had dreams of being an architect, but dropped out and instead became a chef, would you dismiss their restaurant by saying “The food is terrible because they couldn’t make it as an architect”? Of course you wouldn’t because people would mock your laughable excuse for an opinion. Expect the same result on a music website.

7. Don’t use the artist’s personality to defend their work.

The artist is by all accounts a nice person but that does not under any circumstances make their art worthwhile. So they worked hard for their success? Artistic merit is not based on hard work. If you like to see hard work rewarded watch The World’s Strongest Man. So they are nice to their fans? That is truly a plus but it doesn’t mean they deserve less scrutiny. A review should contain good writing and, at some point, an honest appraisal of the music. That’s it. If somebody wants a pat on the back for being a good person, the last place they should look for it is a music review.

8. Don’t describe the reviewer as bitter.

So I just reviewed your favourite artist and I ripped them a new one. You’re angry. You’re really angry. What are you gonna do about it, huh? You’re going to call me bitter? Are you serious? That’s the best you’ve got? Here we have yet another failed attempt to undermine the reviewer by supposedly exposing their real motives, a tactic of such worthless wrongheadedness that is outdone only by its predictability. The word bitter crops up almost as much as the word hipster in time-wasting dismissals of negative music reviews and seems like the go-to word for those high on anger but low on reason.

Look, I’m not saying people shouldn’t ever take issue with what a reviewer says, by all means take a crack at it. Just do me a favour and don’t use any of the examples I’ve listed. Either say what it is you like about the album or make your repudiation of the review original and entertaining. It’s not that difficult.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

The Wild Swans – The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years (album review)

The Wild Swans’ peak years exist more as legend than fact. Tentatively emerging from the post-punk Liverpool scene, they released one single, ‘The Revolutionary Spirit’, on Zoo Records, recorded a few radio sessions, and promptly disappeared. The youthful brilliance of these early recordings made them one of the great ‘lost’ bands from the early 80s yet they reformed in ’86 to record a couple of horrible-sounding albums that, all in all, did nothing to enhance their reputation. In 2003 came Incandescent, a compilation that collected everything recorded from their early years. Listening to it for the first time is certainly a moment of wonder as The Wild Swans come off as the missing link between early Orange Juice and The Smiths. Jangly, romantic, and highly poetic, there is real genius in those first recordings. Unfortunately Incandescent is now out of print and internet prices regularly border on the outrageous. Fast forward to 2011 and we have The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years, the group’s third album in 30 years.

Truth be told The Wild Swans are actually Paul Simpson, in that he is the singer, main songwriter, and the only person to have graced all of their recordings. An early member of The Teardrop Explodes, Simpson has somehow persevered in the face of adversity and general indifference, and now for the second time he calls on some fellow musicians (including Will Sergeant of Echo & The Bunnymen) to rally around the banner and join him for one more death or glory raid into no man’s land. Yes, Simpson is a doomed romantic and, turning his steely gaze on England’s green and pleasant landscape, he does not like what he sees. Opening track ‘Falling To Bits’ is nothing less than a clarion call as he asks the residents of England to rise from their stupor and light a mighty bonfire that torches what England has become. It reminds me that romanticism can, at times, sound an awful lot like fascism. At some point the sorrows of young Werther became the sorrows of young Adolf and all that talk of noble spirit and purity suddenly sounded like the most frightening thing on earth. That’s not to say that I think Simpson is a fascist or any such nonsense, but romanticism taken to extremes starts to become unromantic. It starts to sound dogmatic and reactionary and there’s certainly a lot of romanticism on The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years, perhaps a little too much for my liking.

Despite this, there is still much to enjoy on the album. ‘Chloroform’ is a highlight, as Simpson conjures up images of loss from both World Wars. ‘English Electric Lighting’ moves along with a certain grace but oftentimes Simpson’s tendency to list numerous aspects of English society make me think of ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ which I’m guessing is not the effect the band is after. In terms of music there’s nothing particularly bad, indeed with each listen I seem to enjoy the whole thing more. At the same time, when it’s your third album in 30 years, sounding like an above-average James album is not going to win you legions of new fans. For all its strengths The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years won’t be supplanting those early recordings as the Holy Grail of The Wild Swans canon.

I feel like I’m being overly critical of an album that I basically enjoy, but I think the problem is I don’t enjoy it enough to let the weak points pass by without a mention. I would say ‘My Town’ is another highlight, and musically that would be the case, but the lyrics feature the same lamenting of things gone by and that incessant listing of things which isn’t as powerful as Simpson seems to think it is. Then, when he invokes William Blake on ‘The Bluebell Wood’, I begin to tire of the mythical Albion so beloved by many. Perhaps it’s because I’m a Scot and I couldn’t give two shits about Albion (even though it refers to all of Britain, the name Albion seems to be an English obsession), and perhaps it’s that fear of extreme romanticism that I mentioned earlier, but a lot of these lyrics don’t sit easy with me. Perhaps Britain is a shadow of its former self, but I need to know why people believe that to be the case before I sign up for their mailing list. Oftentimes eulogies of Britain’s lost majesty are used as a stick to whack immigrants with while ignoring the neo-liberal policies of every Prime Minister from Thatcher onwards.

I have no doubt that Simpson would be outraged at the idea that a member of the English Defense League is at this very moment enjoying the sentiments expressed on The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years, but there’s no denying that the anger being expressed is ambiguous enough to appeal to all the wrong kinds of people. It feels out of place in these troubled times. And yet, as stated, with each listen I do enjoy the whole album a little more. When all’s said and done, it is an equally rewarding and frustrating experience, and that seems to be an all too familiar pattern when it comes to The Wild Swans.

(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Various Artists – Messthetics #107 & #108 (album review)

In recent times there have been two internet trends that I have found to be rather disturbing. The first is the fact that you cannot read a story about someone going to prison without dozens of rape fantasies being blurted out in the comments section. With depressing regularity, thousands upon thousands of people apparently take great delight in the abject humiliation of another human being. The second is the tendency of many to try and shut down criticism of a musician or film star they admire by demanding to know, “Who the fuck are you?” To break it down, here’s what’s being said: “This person is rich and famous, something that you are not. They have more money than you can even dream of while you are a pathetic failure who is neither rich nor famous. They will continue to make money regardless and you will continue to be a nobody.” Having a voice, an opinion, is something that is earned on the marketplace, not something you should feel entitled to.

When did we turn into such obsequious pipsqueaks who rush to defend monetary success for its own sake? In such dire times culturally and economically, why is every magazine and online publication rushing to applaud Jay-Z and Kanye West as they rub their considerable wealth and power in our collective faces? Was it always thus? In truth, these elements have always been at play in society. The powerless will often take pleasure in thinking there are those even more powerless than themselves, or they will pledge allegiance to more powerful individuals in the hope that this will somehow bring them closer to that opulent lifestyle they desire. Sometimes, though, the powerless are given a voice and it does not pick on those just as powerless – sometimes it takes aim at those in power. For all its faults punk allowed many to do just that. It provided vocal solidarity and support to those who felt marginalised and angry and in doing so it unleashed a wealth of independent singles and recordings. Some of these all but forgotten releases have been collected on the ongoing series Messthetics, named after an early Scritti Politti track which seemed to sum up a certain DIY spirit of the times.

This review concerns numbers 107 and 108 in the series which deal with London and the South Coast respectively. Initially skeptical, I was surprised to discover that both CDs are an absolute joy from beginning to end. The songs themselves are clattering, angry, funny and touching bursts of uncontainable energy. Who the fuck do these people think they are? Don’t they know they’re nobody nothings? Apparently they don’t. Apparently they think they can write, play and record songs for the sheer exhilarating rush of creating and adding their voice to the throng.

These people never did ‘make it’ in any proper sense of the word, with Poison Girls being the most famous act present. Who are Stolen Power and why have they not received MBEs yet? Whatever became of Renaldo & The Loaf? Do Methodishca Tune realise that they can do Scritti Politti better than Scritti Politti? Could Indifferent Dance Centre be the best band name of all time?

This is pure gold. Men and women feeling empowered, feeling like their voices were important. The performances sound vital and alive. Does it matter that sometimes the drums sound like wet cardboard being hit by a dead haddock? Not a bit. There is heart here. There is pride. There is commitment. I want to know who these people are. I want to tell them that no matter what, they made a difference, they made a mark. To the world at large they may be nothing, and those living in London right now may pass them by on a daily basis, but at this moment these people are my heroes. Willful and indignant in the face of mass indifference, their contributions have been rescued from the memory hole, dusted down, and presented to you on these wonderful compilations. Seek them out like your life depended on it.

(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Richard Youngs – Amplifying Host (album review)

There was a time, not too long ago, when I found it difficult to listen to anything made before 1972. I had pronounced 60s music dead to my ears and felt like it was a betrayal to enjoy it. Except for The Incredible String Band. Given that they were folk-based, clearly hippies, and that their music was overflowing with a certain childlike whimsy, it didn’t make sense that I continued to enjoy them given the fact that I was trying to cut myself off from my 60s fascinations of earlier days. Yet for some reason, The Incredible String Band, and especially the songs of Robin Williamson, continued to enrapture me. I didn’t hear the 60s when I listened to them. I heard something deeper. I heard some kind of universal musical key that freed their songs from societal context. I heard the drone. What is the drone? The easiest example would be sitar music. The same note or harmony is sounding continuously, hypnotically, throughout the song. In Western music, up until recently, the drone was seldom used, except in Scotland. Those much maligned bagpipes wailed the folk music of Scotland while the drone sat unmoving underneath it all. Perhaps this was why The Incredible String Band were able to use the drone so effectively, why the influence of Indian classical music didn’t sound cheap. Even if they didn’t use the drone for entire songs it still popped up at all times, while Robin Williamson’s voice strained to go against Western melodic conventions and instead soared as if it were a melody being played on a sitar.

So what hath this to do with Richard Youngs? Everything. I’m a recent convert to Youngs so I have no idea whether every other album he’s put out (of which there are apparently hundreds) sounds like Amplifying Host. All I know is that I’m captivated. When first track ‘Furrows Again’ begins I immediately think of The Incredible String Band. Not in the sense that I think he’s ripping them off, or that he’s trying to sound like them, more like I hear a similarity in approach. Youngs, if not outright using the drone, is flirting with it. Quite outrageously. Each song, and each small part which constitutes these songs, seems to contain its own mini-drone. This is not pop music. This is music to surrender to. Music to inhabit.

Even though the instrumentation is traditional, this album has more in common with Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 or Boards Of Canada than the latest offerings from Fleet Foxes. (It’s no coincidence that Boards of Canada claim The Incredible String Band as one of their prime influences). Amplifying Host is the music of repetition. The songs all share a certain feel, a certain approach, and a certain length, except for ‘Too Strong for the Power’ which clocks in at over 13 minutes. With slow, repetitive music it can either fail miserably, or it can take hold so that each minor change feels like a major revelation in the same way that a sudden gust of wind can disturb old memories as late afternoon gives way to twilight. This album definitely belongs in the latter category.

Each song is built around an acoustic finger-picking pattern which is augmented by a wildly atonal lead guitar that seems to imply impending danger. If the music is pastoral it doesn’t paint the countryside as a pleasant place. On the contrary, nature seems mysterious and sinister. There is darkness at the heart of the wood, and a hundred broken-hearted lovers have taken their last breath while plunging into that ice-cold loch which looks so serene to the hurried passer-by. On the last track ‘This Is The Music’, Youngs sings “This is the music of exaltation” and it makes perfect sense. This is music that exalts the closing of the day, worships the dark power that whispers amongst the trees, builds an altar to the hypnotic music of the river. It is as old as the hills yet it is music for now, that could only exist right now. For many it will be tiresome, but for those who can close their eyes and exist within the rhythms of the music this album will be a blessing.

If this all sounds a little too Buddhist for your liking I have only one thing to say. Get lost. You might enjoy it.

(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Top Ten Animated Disney Songs Of All Time

Nazi Supermen are our superiors

Walt Disney was beloved by the world, except when he was perpetuating racial stereotypes and buddying up with anti-Semites. Yes, in terms of evil Americans Walt seems to come second only to Henry Ford. To deny his racial stereotyping is absurd, especially in the face of blatant evidence. When watching Peter Pan with my daughter for the first time I felt ill upon hearing ‘What Made the Red Man Red?’ It was not a favourite in my household when growing up so I had no memory of anything that happened in the movie. God, what the fuck were they thinking? Without denying these troubling elements of the Disney movies I would still like to attempt an appreciation of the music. We may hit some choppy waters but there is still much to admire in the music and animation. Here’s my vote for Top 10 Disney songs of all time.

10. ‘The Phony King Of England’ from Robin Hood

A rip-roaring sing along perhaps more famous for the fact that in the animation that accompanied the music the Disney animators reused animation from older movies in order to save money. This meant little to me as a child and it means even less now. The first of many appearances in the Top 10 by Phil Harris, who here voices the character of Little John.

9. ‘Prince Ali’ from Aladdin

This is Robin Williams’ best role, hands down. What’s that you say? You find Robin Williams irritating? Check this out – I don’t care. Only the most mean-spirited misanthrope could not find delight in this song. Actually, I’m a mean-spirited misanthrope and I love this song, so if you don’t enjoy it I suppose that just makes you a chump. Oh and when the characters start commentating on the parade it is one of the funniest moments in any Disney movie ever. Don’t they look lovely June?

8. ‘Bare Necessities’ from The Jungle Book

Pure joy. I remember with great clarity re-watching The Jungle Book aged 16 and being almost in tears so important was this movie to my childhood. The story was of course adapted from the book by staunch imperialist and inventor of racist terminology Rudyard Kipling. Is there no peace for my inner child? Not really, but ‘Bare Necessities’ is relatively innocent and it has an addictive glee that is impossible to resist. Well, I dare say there could be good reasons for resisting it but my inner child feels only happiness at this songs existence. Phil Harris again.

7. 'Someday My Prince Will Come' from Snow White

Now this is a melody. Somewhere along the way Disney songwriters lost the ability to write a moving ballad and everything became schmaltz. Not here though. Listen to how the melody surges ever onward, mirroring the inner yearnings of the heart and its innocent pleas. Compare this to the constricted and ugly melody to ‘Part Of Your World’ from The Little Mermaid and you’ll immediately understand the loss in quality. Glorious.

6. ‘Everybody Wants To Be A Cat’ from The Aristocats

Scatman Crothers and Phil Harris trade off on this hymn to hep cats and cool times. The song is almost destroyed by more awful racial stereotypes, this time of the Asian variety. The Disney company was nothing if not equal opportunity in its determination to offend every non-white person on the planet. Ignore if you can the ugliness that occasionally creeps up and instead revel in the brilliant songwriting. Fun Fact: Phil Harris’s real first name was Wonga.

5. 'Never Had A Friend Like Me’ from Aladdin

The perfect anecdote to all that ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’ crap that Toy Story peddles, this is manic madness. Once more Robin Williams is on fire. Would the song be as good without him? Probably not, but performance is everything and combined with the animation this song is genius. If you say anything about not liking Robin Williams I’m ignoring you.

4. ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’ from The Jungle Book

First of all, King Louis is not voiced by an African-American. It is Louis Prima. Second of all … well, there’s no second of all. It would be easy to find sinister undertones in this number given Prima’s jazzy voice and Disney’s track record with racial stereotypes, but I prefer to take this song for what it is, a barnstorming swing number that allows Louis Prima and that man Wonga Harris to shine. I revert again to my inner child.

3. ‘Pink Elephants On Parade’ from Dumbo

This whole sequence is a bad trip before the phrase was ever invented. Sinister and genuinely disturbing, the song was later covered by Sun Ra and it’s not hard to hear why. A case could probably be made that LSD usage came naturally to a generation raised on Disney. Utterly fantastic in every sense of the word.

2. 'Not In Nottingham' from Robin Hood

In Americana’s rush to embrace the authentic hard-living tales of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson it forgot the goofball genius of Roger Miller. Too clever by half, Miller dipped his toe into any musical genre he fancied and created a body of work that is an unexplored treasure trove. Voicing Alan-a-Dale the singing rooster, Miller penned this moving ode to unhappiness for Disney but its power is such that it transcends these origins and exists as a vital song all on its own. Nevertheless its part in the movie is heartbreaking. Apparently this has been covered by those talentless shitbags Mumford & Sons. Don’t let that put you off.

1. ‘Once Upon A Dream’ from Sleeping Beauty

They really don’t write ‘em like this anymore. The melody is so beautifully expressive and generous that, combined with the wide-eyed romantic innocence of the words, it threatens to sweep us off of our feet. Based on a Tchaikovsky piece, it manages to capture the epic enchantment of love that stands in contrast to the preferred ‘realities’ of love as described in something like ‘Ether’ by Gang Of Four. Except I’d lay a bet that most if not all of the members of Gang Of Four are married or in long term relationships right now. Love conquers all.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Interview with Dan Bejar of Destroyer

Destroyer have existed in one form or another since around 1995. The one constant in the band is Dan Bejar. Although he makes cameo appearances in both The New Pornographers and Swan Lake, his main musical project is Destroyer. I catch him via telephone to talk about the band’s ninth album Kaputt.

In terms of the promotional aspects of Kaputt, and I realise we’re doing an interview right now, is that winding down or is there still lots to do?

In North America the record came out at the end of January so that is definitely winding down. We are going to leave for a tour in a few days. We’re going on tour in Europe for two and a half weeks so there’s probably promotional stuff around then that’s going to happen but the record is starting to feel a little far away. It’s not that it came out that long ago but from the time I first started working on it it’s been quite a bit of time.

I read somewhere that it took a year and a half to take shape.

Yeah, maybe more. I think we started working on it in the fall of 2008 and handed it in in June of 2010. It wasn’t just us trying to blaze a trail in the studio seven days a week for a year and a half. It was an erratic schedule but I think I knew that an erratic schedule was going to be necessary for this record.

The reaction of the music press seemed to be overwhelming positive. Is that something that pleases you or are you the kind of person who essentially ignores that kind of thing and just gets on with it?

I don’t know if it pleases me because it’s always hard to tell what exactly is going on when there’s a positive reaction. Because the record is getting a positive reaction from people who never knew the band before or in other cases did know the band and actively disliked them then you never really know exactly what it means. I guess being nine albums in you see how things can come and go pretty quickly. The record also does seem to be attached to some idea of a youth culture zeitgeist, sonically anyway. People seem to want to lump it in with some younger groups which to me is somewhat amusing.

I think there’s a tendency among the music press, because of the sound of the album, to assume that you’re coming at it from an arch point of view as if you’re indulging in something which is seen as uncool and that has a lot of currency these days.

It would seem that, when you boil it down, there are certain sounds from the 80s, the commercial, crossover New Wave sounds, that were treated like venom for a few years or so but in the last few years people born around that time seem to have embraced, though I’m not really sure at what level. I guess that happens with every generation, you go hunting in the weirdest places you can find. I don’t think that’s what Kaputt is born of myself but only because I’m privy to inside information of how the record came about.

Even though this word might seem frightening to some people I think the record is sincere. I don’t mean that in the worst kind of way, I just mean I don’t see anything ironic about it. It more just seems like this is what you were listening to and you wanted to go for that sound.

At its simplest level it’s kind of a collection of sad disco music, a genre I’ve always liked. On top of that there are some New Wave and jazz flourishes. There’s a lot of soloing horns and there’s a lot of programmed drums. If all that adds up to something that’s kitschy in someone’s mind that’s fine but those are things that I like, things I’ve always liked. The deal with Destroyer is if I hear something I just want a piece of it. However ill-advised that may be I just go for it. About seven years ago we put out a record called Your Blues which was actually made in a similar way to Kaputt except it wasn’t intended to be pop music. It was intended to be experimental so it ended up being a little more baroque and melodious than pop music. It was at a time when I was really into the idea of coalescing the four decades of Scott Walker’s vision. Of course most people probably couldn’t think of someone more distant from Scott Walker than me and my voice, and probably even my writing style. From that weird project something else was born and I ended making something that probably didn’t sound anything like what I originally set out to make but it’s kind of cool nonetheless. Kaputt in its own way is not that different excepting that for the first time in my life I wanted to make a pop record so it makes sense that it’s a bit more accessible. The singing was less aggressive, a bit more space to it, kind of more even keeled. So in that sense the vocals are less alienating than they have been on other records.

With some bands you can see a progression in their albums, and you can tell where they’re going to go on the next album. With Destroyer, though, it almost seems like since Streethawk: A Seduction every album has been almost a rejection of the previous album. Is that a fair enough assessment or do things just happen that way and it’s not a conscious decision?

I don’t think it’s an active rejection. I kind of have a jittery muse. I’m not really a musician, I mean I can string together chords on guitar or piano, so I’m not really tied down to expressing myself in a distinct way on an instrument. I’m more of a vocalist and for that reason the music can dart around a lot. I have some very disparate tastes. I probably have very myopic tastes at the end of the day but within the tiny confines of rock and pop music I think it can jump around a lot. I think I’ve started looking at the music on a song to song basis of what I think the song actually needs, of what would be beneficial for the song. Before there was a certain idea of, ‘Let’s see what the song is really made of’. If it’s worth its weight then it’s going to have to stand up to a certain amount of abuse so sometimes things could get a bit discombobulated or would get built up in very strange directions. That would happen from record to record. Sometimes I would just want to relax and play in a group and have the record sound as close as possible to what it might sound like for us to be all together in a room playing music. Streethawk would be an example of that.

Not so much on Kaputt, but a lot of your previous albums have featured barbed critiques of the music industry. I remember you got some press previous to the album coming out when you put together some ideas of what Kaputt was born of.

Yeah, the record label wanted me to put together a list of what I thought the record was about.

(That list in full – Kaputt by Malaparte, which Bejar has never read… Kara Walker, specifically the lyrics she contributed to the song ‘Suicide Demo for Kara Walker’… Chinatown, the neighborhood bordering on Bejar’s… Baby blue eyes… 80s Miles Davis… 90s Gil Evans… Last Tango in Paris… Nic Bragg, who played lead guitar on every song, again… Fretless bass… The hopelessness of the future of music… The pointlessness of writing songs for today… V-Drums… The superiority of poetry and plays… And what’s to become of film?… The Cocaine Addict… American Communism… Downtown, the neighborhood bordering on Bejar’s… The LinnDrum… Avalon and, more specifically, Boys And Girls… The devastated mind of JC/DC, who recorded, produced and mixed this record from fall of 2008 to spring of 2010… The back-up vocals of certain Roy Ayers and Long John Baldry tours… Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence… )

You seem to be cursed in that when you mention something it becomes the theme of the next 15 interviews. I remember you described Your Blues as “European blues”.

Yeah, I still have to answer questions about ‘European blues’.

Do you feel dismay at music culture in general? Is the way music is consumed bothersome to you or is there just too much being made of things you say before your albums come out?

When I think about Kaputt, if I’m thinking of the record itself, I seem more at peace with the world than ever. If those things ever come up they come up in a very different way they come up in Streethawk or Thief where, aside from whatever view I might have had on the underground culture business, a lot of my lyrics were composed as a series of jabs. That was probably my style back then. I don’t think that’s happening on Kaputt. Before that, probably starting with Rubies and leading up to Trouble in Dreams, I felt like I was on a path of leaving behind any kind of social writing whatsoever and trying to focus more on an imagist style. I guess Destroyer records have some kind of rep as being cultural critiques but that’s not really how I see myself as a writer. I suppose as someone who accidently describes their social milieu then every drama needs a backdrop or a background and I just used the world of music or the world of art as a background on a couple of songs but I don’t think it’s the pivotal aspect of what is happening. On Kaputt, when I rattle off a bunch of dead UK music magazines it’s not meant as a barb. It’s more someone just rattling off a bunch of distant memories. That someone may be on their sickbed, on morphine, and they’re just laying awake and being visited by these fleeting, possibly pointless, aspects of their past and that past may include a copy of Melody Maker. I will say that the way music is consumed and disseminated now, probably mostly because of my age, I do find it a little confusing. Confusing would probably be the best word. I’m not so much critical of it as just alien to it.

As somebody who’s only three or four years younger than you I definitely share that confusion. You face a choice of becoming the kind of person who re-listens to the same albums until they die or alternatively trying to embrace something that may not actually be made for you in any way.

It’s true, but when I’m actually writing I don’t think about any of this stuff because when I’m in that mode I’m more of a beast. Everything is kind of instinctual. Then when I go into the studio, which is the real work part for me, I don’t really think about it either. I only really think about it when the record comes out and we go on the road. You look out into the audience and you see a bunch of people half your age and once in a while I’ll think ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ Most of the time I’m not engaged with those thoughts.

On Kaputt, I don’t feel like you’re actually trying to ‘say’ something. Some people think the point of music is for the artist to express an emotion, while others think the point is to create an emotion in the listener. I feel like you’re trying to create an emotion in the listener, perhaps trying to spark up images in their mind, as opposed to actually saying something.

I think I know what you mean. How Destroyer worked in the past, even though it could be a lot more abstract sounding, I think it’s way more pointed than Kaputt. On Kaputt I really wanted the vocals and the words to contribute to the ambience. Usually my lyrics and vocals provide a counterpoint to the music, or there’s even a bit of a battle going on, but this time I wanted things to be seamless. I don’t think it was really a conscious move but I knew when I had the songs in front of me that this is how I wanted to proceed. In general I was way more concerned with the sonics of the record than with my role as an orator or something. Sometimes in the past I kind of played around with that as if I were doing vocal takes from a podium.

In saying that, I would still describe the album as highly lyrical. If you take someone like Dylan, when he wanted it to be more about the music oftentimes his lyrics went right down the tubes and he just sang nonsensical, awful things, and the only thing you had to hang on to was the music. I don’t think that’s the case with Kaputt.

I think at this point I can trust myself more as a singer and play more to the role of singer than writer, maybe for the first time, or singer as opposed to ranter. Still, to sing something it has to fit into my mouth which isn’t easy. I have to feel really comfortable and I have feel like there’s some sort of conviction to what is being said. Which is why Destroyer has always struggled with our Stones covers. I love the Stones so much but when I try to do a song and I have the lyrics in front of me I can’t do it.

Yeah, I can’t say I’ve ever tackled the Stones at karaoke.

Maybe disco Stones. It’s tough, but I’ll keep trying.

I look forward to that Stones cover making the set.

One of these days we’ll get it right.

Whenever you play live you don’t really interact with the crowd. Is that an un-comfortableness or do you just think “I really don’t have anything to add”?

I have nothing to say to anybody. I’ve been to a couple of shows in my life when people interact with the audience and what they say adds to the show but most of the time it’s really superfluous and breaks you from the music. I’d much rather have a minute of awkward silence than me asking people how their night went. Awkward silence has way more to do with the music we’re playing than casual banter, which has nothing to do with what Destroyer are about.

I read an interview not too long ago and you said you hadn’t written anything since Kaputt. You sounded a little despondent and you were talking about writing plays instead of making music. Is that still on your mind?

I feel like there’s a certain style of writing that I really like that I’ve tried exercising in music in the past that I can’t imagine trying in the future. Kaputt is kind of a signpost for that. A song like ‘Bay Of Pigs’ is probably the last of a certain type of Destroyer song. The other ones are more in keeping with what the future might hold. I’ve written a couple of songs since then but I definitely write a lot slower than I used to. I’ve always thought, probably wrongly, that it’s a style of writing that could be applied to other art forms. That being said, I’ve never tried. I’m still on word one.

I think with music, if you have more of a lyrical approach, I could imagine someone thinking, “Am I still going to be doing this at 60 as a functioning musician?”

Yeah, am I going to be hanging out backstage at the 400 Bar when I’m 60 years old? Maybe I should go and write a play instead.

Moving into plays or novels feels like a more respectable profession.

Generally people who’ve tried to make the transition fail miserably and are a complete embarrassment so it’s complete hubris for me to think I would not suffer that same fate but it’s fun to think about. It is something that I’m genuinely interested in even if it’s from a wide-eyed, inexperienced perspective. I don’t really know what goes into any other art form. That being said I’ve been writing longer than I’ve been making music so I can at least fool myself into thinking that at some point I could manage that. I think I’m really into music these days. Lyrics always come very naturally but what excites me these days are the one-off collaborations that I’ve done. Not necessarily anything on Kaputt, but the ambient music artists I’ve collaborated with. Weird shit like that is going to add years to my life if I can continue to do it. I need some clean breaks from pop music or else I’ll go mental. It took so long to make the record and then after that to figure out how to play it live. That was a bit of an undertaking. Then there’s a bunch of touring. So any idea of what the future might hold, I haven’t given it a second thought because I have to get on a plane in a couple of days and I just want to get to the airport.

(This interview originally appeared on Collapse Board)

R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant: 25th Anniversary Edition (Album Review)

It’s 1986. R.E.M.’s previous album Fables Of The Reconstruction has not reaped the expected commercial rewards. Teaming the group up with legendary producer Joe Boyd has failed to produce bigger sales. Whoever imagined that in 1985 Joe Boyd was the one to help put R.E.M. into the big league had clearly not looked at the man’s track record. The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, Nico, Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson – wonderful music, but hardly bestsellers. What do you do when Joe Boyd’s magic touch doesn’t work, or rather works about as well in commercial terms as it’s always done? In 1986 you call in John Mellencamp’s producer Don Gehman and hope for that big crossover hit. Ain’t that America.

So if you’re using Mellencamp’s producer, and recording in Mellencamp’s studio, what makes you different from Mellencamp? The answer is ridiculously simple yet remains something ultimately unprovable by logic. R.E.M. were better. On Lifes Rich Pageant they may have come dangerously close to Mellencamp or Petty territory, with their post-punk edge all but invisible, but they were inherently superior. For one, what set them apart was Michael Stipe. Without him R.E.M. may indeed have been everything their detractors said they were. Neither Mellencamp nor Petty would have been capable of anything so poetic as the lyrics to ‘Swan Swan H’, even if the chords were a standard minor key folk waltz. Their turf was everyman observations, while Stipe mixed left-wing political concerns with defiant obscuritanism to produce something utterly unique. Lifes Rich Pageant follows the pattern of all R.E.M. albums up through Automatic For The People in that it remains a consistently brilliant creation despite lacking musical innovation or experimentation of any kind. They were simply great, end of story.

Having created the appropriate distance to indicate that this review will have a slightly detached yet ultimately positive viewpoint I now intend to cast this to the flames, and come right out and say that I adore R.E.M. and Lifes Rich Pageant. By that I mean I don’t just like this album, I mean I am obsessively in love with it. I mean I’m secretly checking this albums text messages and wondering who that person is who liked its last status update. Sure I could do without the ‘Superman’ cover but other than that we’re approaching perfection. When ‘Begin The Begin’ starts my heart flips over. All the way. Then there’s ‘These Days’. If you ever find me dying in the street don’t give me mouth to mouth (I don’t know where your filthy lips have been), just play me ”These Days’. Stand back though, I may levitate.

These songs are inside me, under my skin. The melody to ‘Fall On Me’ still catches me unawares, still creates THAT feeling in my chest. Don’t even get me started on ‘Hyena’ or ‘I Believe’. There are only so many times you can talk about jangling guitars and soaring vocals but Christ, R.E.M. had no right to be this good, this vital sounding. Even the Rain Dogs goof-off ‘Underneath The Bunker’ sounds fantastic. While writing this review I’m re-listening to the album and I find myself muttering “God, I love this song” out loud multiple times as if I’d somehow forgotten. This music means too much. It creates too many emotions. Best get a grip. Best get some distance.

Despite their conservative approach R.E.M. didn’t really sound like anyone from the 60s or 70s. They may have had that Byrdsian jangle going on, but they didn’t actually sound like The Byrds. They were traditional, but they weren’t trying to recreate the sound of another era. It’s a strange journey from being jealous of Pylon to recruiting John Mellencamp’s producer but you get the feeling that no matter who produced them R.E.M. would still have come out sounding just like R.E.M.. Perhaps Don Gehman gave the album some additional sonic clarity that allowed radio stations to feel comfortable playing the singles, but the songs still sounded mostly the same even in their demo versions. Lifes Rich Pageant isn’t a musical leap forward, but rather a further step down a particular musical trajectory. Orthodox but not ordinary, reverent but not replicators, R.E.M. were unique in that they had the ability to create something compelling from overused song-forms and conventional instrumentation. To this day it remains a rare occurrence.

(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Both Sides, Now! – How Women are Denied Universal Appeal as Songwriters

When you’ve been listening to certain artists for a long time you can sometimes go through long periods of not listening to them. You love them, but for some reason you let them sit on your shelves undisturbed until suddenly one day you reach for one of their albums and, BOOM, suddenly you wonder how you could have gone so long without listening to them. That happened to me recently with Joni Mitchell. I threw on Clouds and all but gasped as each song reintroduced itself to me as something completely new and somehow even better. What usually happens then is that I want to read more about them. I want to see if a good writer can enhance my listening experience so I trawl around reading everything I can. In the case of Joni Mitchell I decided to check out allmusic.com to see what they had to say. This is the first sentence:
“When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century.”

Whether you agree or disagree with this quote is beside the point. The shocking thing about it is that you will never find an equivalent statement about any male artist. Ever. Think you can find one? I dare you. I double dare you. Bob Dylan would never be described as the most important male recording artist of the late 20th Century. He is simply a recording artist. It would be foolish to imagine that statements of this kind are rare. Female singers and songwriters seem forever destined to be bracketed off to the side, while males are allowed to be universal, untethered by their sex or gender. 'What’s the big deal' you say? 'Joni Mitchell is female, and she’s hugely influential. No need to get your PC knickers in a twist!' The big deal is that this is an example of the way the female experience is denied universal appeal. The male experience is the norm against which the experience of the female is measured and for that reason the average woman in the music industry (and elsewhere) is scrutinised all the more for signs of deviance from the norm. What’s even more frustrating about the above comment is that it is meant to be a compliment, not a put-down, even though it refuses to place Joni Mitchell’s work alongside the greatest work of men. Forget about all that ‘Kurt wrote Live Through This’ stuff which is clearly designed to annoy and antagonise. This is where the real damage is done.

How do I even start documenting the damage? The allmusic quote is loaded for two specific reasons. One, as pointed out, it stops Joni Mitchell’s work from being considered alongside the best work of males. She has a separate category so no need to compare and contrast. Two, in the patriarchal society the terms ‘female’ and ‘feminine’ are loaded with assumptions that come from the perspective of maleness, which acts as the norm. Think of the average male performer and you’ll notice that their maleness is either invisible, or it is psychologically affirmed to make it an essential element of being human. Being male, and masculinity, is natural and real. Being female, however, is wrought with internal contradictions and affectations.

We can look at examples from everyday life to unpack what being female means in our society. Think of the phrase ‘one of the lads’, which is frequently used as a compliment toward women. What does it mean? It means a woman who has a beer with the boys without being too girly or feminine. She may even burp and talk about sex. Bottom line: she is not affected in any way. She is not fake. She is … more like a man. Would a man ever take ‘one of the girls’ as compliment? In the vast majority of cases nothing could be more of an insult. It would imply femininity and gossipy superficiality. How many times have we heard the term ‘she’s good-looking but she knows it’? The implication here is that women should be beautiful yet exist in some kind of childlike state of innocence in regards to their beauty and how it affects others. Once she has awareness she is conceited, manipulative, attention-seeking, superficial, pathetic.

Men demand that women be natural and unaffected, and nowhere more so than in the world of music. But in this context what does natural and unaffected mean? It means women should be more like men (normal), or conform to male ideals of what they imagine natural and unaffected looks like. Do men see a cocky, good-looking male singer as being unnatural? Absolutely not, as long as they don’t indulge in too many traits of femininity. They are simply being real, strutting their stuff, indulging in some masculine bravado. The average man has no need to question this masculinity as they themselves see it as natural and good.

Being a man simply is: women on the other hand complain about being objectified then they go and wear a nice dress and wear their hair in an alluring fashion to attract men’s attention – what’s that about? If a guy wears a nice suit, or gets a tattoo, or a fashionable haircut, or wears clothes that aren’t sweatpants and a baggy T-shirt, well that’s completely natural and not some desperate attempt at attention seeking. Women on the other hand, well they’re always trying to be noticed! What’s going on here is that the male view of things becomes, de facto, the universal view, to the point where women are sometimes conflicted about what they wear and what the purpose of it is. Do men go through this torture? Not even for a second because maleness is 'natural' and doesn’t need to be questioned. I realise that this subject has been tackled a million times over by more learned writers than me, but I still hear and read comments regarding women that comply with the ones I mention above on an almost daily basis. So something isn’t getting through.

If being a woman is viewed with such scrutiny in the patriarchal world, it stands to reason that women songwriters and performers will forever be denied universal appeal as they are merely dealing with ‘female’ concerns. When a writer says that Joni Mitchell is, “The most important and influential female recording artist” the sentence is weighed down with preconceived ideas of what being a female means, and what being a female artist means. The author instead could have taken a chance and said, “The most important and influential recording artist” and gone on to make a case that Mitchell showed both stylistic and lyrical superiority to Dylan in her folk years, that her subsequent embrace of more jazz-influenced sounds represented a more radical leap than anything attempted by Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, and that songs such as ‘The Jungle Line’ and ‘Shadows and Light’ to this day remain challenging and unorthodox. The author could have put their heart and soul on the line and actually risked enraging and engaging their audience, but instead they took the easy way out and limited Joni Mitchell to ‘most important female’. Now before anyone complains that there’s nothing wrong with being an important female (there isn’t) it needs to be pointed out that in the context of a patriarchal society terms like ‘important female artist’ are very damaging, for all the reasons listed above. When maleness stops being the norm against which all behaviours are measured is the moment when statements like ‘important female artist’ will stop being limiting.

How do we fix this situation? There remains an underlying assumption that women singers and songwriters are expressing a limited aspect of humanity, that their thoughts and emotions do not have the same grand all-encompassing sweep as that of the male artist. This is where the music writer can truly alter perceptions. Let those who see unfairness use their anger as a crowbar to pry open the minds of those momentarily fooled by illogical societal inferences. Once open, flood these minds with unarguable reasons as to why they need to hear a particular artist, be it the forgotten 60s sunshine pop of Margo Guryan:

or the ice-cold majesty of Austra.

Harmful opinions about women in music more often than not rest on the assumption that the status quo represents some kind of natural law, that broad commercial appeal and critical approval indicates some kind of innate greatness. The list of powerful, talented, unorthodox women songwriters is too long to type up. That they did not always receive validation on the market, or from critics, speaks more of the poverty of imagination in regards to popular culture than to the lack of authentic brilliance from the artists in question. It seems a pity that this still needs to be pointed out.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

We Don't Have To Breed - Nirvana, Masculinity, and Discovering Alternative Music

When Nevermind came out I was 15 years old, living in Falkirk, Scotland and I didn’t have the slightest idea who Nirvana were. At the time, I was still half in love with Top 40 pop while also listening to what I imagined was more grown-up music. Basically, my idea of alternative music was Inspiral Carpets. I watched Nirvana play 'Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on Top Of The Pops and thought it was terrible. Why was this guy singing in such a ridiculous voice? Must be some silly American metal band. 1991 came and went, and by ’92 I had all but left the Top 40 behind. Fueled by my love of The Beatles and other ‘classic’ bands I imagined that the best guitar music was also the highest-selling. With my vague knowledge of the current music scene I made the leap that U2 and R.E.M. must then be the most important bands in the world! Yes, my then 16-year-old self was still ridiculously naïve when it came to music. What could possibly save me from my ignorance? Obviously, it was Canada. My parents had family in Newfoundland, and in 1992 my mum decided to leave the UK for the first time in her life and visit our Canadian relatives, with me and my dad in tow. It was the summer of ’92 and the house where I stayed had MuchMusic playing almost constantly. It was there that I first heard ‘Lithium’, and it was there that my love affair with Nirvana began.

In my mind, I always imagined that there were other contemporary bands who I loved just as much as Nirvana, but looking back it truly was a watershed moment. In ’92, before Nirvana, I was listening to The Beatles, The Jam, The Stone Roses, The Doors, U2 and R.E.M. Even if I wanted to think of U2 and R.E.M. as current, they had both existed for over 10 years. By ’94 I was listening to Pavement, Sebadoh and Teenage Fanclub, all because of Nirvana. Instead of looking to the past for inspiration, I began to take enjoyment in what was happening right now. Something about ‘Lithium’ hit me really hard. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the song contained the lines “I’m so ugly”, “I’m so lonely” and “I’m so horny“. It managed to sum up my feelings of confused masculinity, my sense of repulsion as teenage hormones flooded my body and seemed to insist that I objectify all the women around me, but I was not one of those guys. Stuck with powerful sexual impulses, I convinced myself that to act on them was disrespectful and cheap. The power dynamic behind male/female relations weighed heavily on me. How would I ever know if my impulses were going to push a girl into doing something that she ultimately did not want to do? My crippling self-consciousness and acne meant that I wouldn’t have to worry about the sexual act for a while, yet the nature of masculinity and male sexual urges still haunted me.

Upon returning to Scotland I picked up Nevermind and began devouring every Nirvana interview I could. His words seemed to confirm my suspicions that Kurt was what I thought of as an ‘embarrassed straight male sexual being’. Basically he was just like me. Clearly I was projecting pretty heavily onto him, but there was enough in his lyrics to make it believable. When I listened to Nevermind I immediately recognised ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from Top Of The Pops, and without the silly vocals it made perfect sense. Soon enough I was obsessed, my heart all but leaping out of my chest throughout the album. ‘Breed’ played heavily into my ‘embarrassed straight male sexual being’ theory, and then there was the line “As defence I’m neutered and spayed” from ‘On A Plain’. Overall there were too many highlights. Too melodic to be metal, too pop influenced to be straight ahead rock, too sensitive to be stadium, Nirvana were a dream and somehow they were everywhere, wielding their influence on radio stations, magazine editors, MTV executives, major label talent scouts and concert bookers. Still a relatively naïve 16-year-old, I saw the word grunge and imagined a music scene to match the magic of the 60s that existed in my mind. Pearl Jam’s name came up often in reference to this thing called grunge. I listened, and immediately felt a sense of crushing disappointment. If this was grunge, then grunge was awful. I bought a Sebadoh album, loved it, and wondered why nobody other than music writers seemed to know who Sebadoh were (granted, the only people I talked to was my family). The thought occurred to me that I was, dare I say it, ‘alternative’.

Yes, this is where all the trouble began. By embracing Nirvana I also embraced the idea that Nirvana stood for something, that there was a thread of rebellion running through music, and this was the latest incarnation. The idea that Nirvana were a compromised beast never occurred to me. My 60s dream of an important guitar band also being the highest-selling had become real, it had become contemporary and it filled my head with all sorts of outlandish notions. Looking back, it’s easy to see that the success of Nevermind was what made major labels see dollar signs dancing in front of every vaguely ‘alternative’ act. Yet without its success there’s a chance that I would have been forever stuck in a retro daydream, cut off from more knowledgeable friends who would have clued me in regardless. At age 16 I was truly friendless and Nirvana made it possible for me to read about completely obscure musical acts in magazines that I could buy in my local corner shop. Nevermind may have pointed major labels to the indie world as a source of revenue, but it also showed the way to those not savvy enough to know who Nirvana were in 1989. Every great thing casts a dark shadow and Nevermind was no different. To a whole generation it gave a glimpse of a world unknown, a world that would be destroyed by the very thing that, to people like me, first indicated that such a world existed.

By the time Kurt Cobain died by his own hand I had given up. The overdose a month before convinced me that he was doomed. My mum woke me up to tell me of his death and I felt nothing but numbness. It was a bad day all around due to some heavy-duty family unhappiness that was occurring at the time and, in a way, everything had become too much. Too much drama. Too much sadness. Just too much. My idea of the ‘embarrassed straight male sexual being’ passed on to Richey James of the Manic Street Preachers, then eventually to Elliott Smith (I know, I know). I began to have suspicions about the kind of music that I was drawn to, about whether my warped sense of masculinity would ever find a positive outlet. Yet, for all that, I do not look back on my Nirvana days with cynicism or shame. At the same time, I do not miss them. We live in an age when to look back is to be accused of nostalgia, the worst most pitiable crime of all, and so the anti-nostalgia essay is as common as the glassy-eyed remembrance. Our motives are explained and filed away before our minds have even formed coherent thoughts.

When I listen to Nirvana now, however, it is not to relive lost moments of my youth. It took me so long to play Nevermind again that its connection to my 16-year-old self had been severed. Purged of an emotional link there was only the music, and I was surprised to find that the music was still great. At times it was downright amazing. To the world at large, Kurt is either a ghostly phantom of the lost power of rock, a sacred cow that thousands will take glee in pissing all over, or another strung out casualty of fame. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t mean anything. He’s dead. The music is still good and maybe that’s the best we can hope for. It’s probably the only thing that Kurt really hoped for out of this whole affair.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)