Dissonant Notes

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck (album review)

If we are to classify the bond we have with artists as relationships then I think my relationship with The Mountain Goats has hit a rough patch. Look, I’m not saying I’ve fallen out of love with them or anything, it’s just that I think the spark has gone. The past few albums by them have been fine, but they all kind of blur into one after a while. They all share a certain tastefulness in regards to the music while the words, always the jewel in The Mountain Goats crown, were starting to sound comforting or, even worse, predictable, when once they were capable of creating an open wound after one listen. It was in this mindset that I approached their new album. After one listen I was ready to declare the relationship all but over, feeling that it was sustained only by the passion and memory of our early years. On second listen I thought perhaps that with some couples therapy we might make it after all. By the third listen it was true love all over again and I was looking forward to many quiet nights in on the couch with some wine and chocolate.

As always, main Mountain Goat John Darnielle imbues his characters with a certain stoic dignity, a gratifying steely resolve that allows us to see their humanity even when the characters actions seem to be self-destructive. Everybody seems to be hiding a terrifying secret from their past, an unbearable memory that will not let them rest until they are finally six feet under. This has sustained Darnielle for an entire career but until this album I thought perhaps his powers were beginning to fail him in recent years. When did I begin to change my mind? I think perhaps it was the string section in ‘Age Of Kings’ that first set my heart a flutter. Then I think it was the heavy atmospherics of ‘The Autopsy Garland’. I play the album again and the frantic ‘Estate Sale Sign’ makes my pulse race. It’s all coming together now. The charming backing vocals of ‘High Hawk Season’ make me smile for unfathomable reasons. I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that this relationship is far from over. This is, without a doubt, The Mountain Goats’ best album in years.

So where do we go from here? Is this a small ray of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy demise? I begin to wonder why this album works when the past two or three have not, despite having very similar qualities, and I see that this album has distinguishing details that give it sparks of life. The above-mentioned string section and backing vocals, small production details that enhance the songs without calling too much attention to themselves, the relative diversity of the songs themselves, everything falls into place correctly and the album, while not exactly soaring, achieves a certain majesty. Can it be done again, and again, with the band sticking to the same formula? This is where I’m not sure. I know that John Darnielle is an avid music fan, and that the music he appreciates covers a wide spectrum of tastes. If he were a DJ he could have been the American John Peel. Which leads me to ask, why doesn’t any of this show up in his music? Knowing that he’s a fan of metal, hip-hop, and probably several musical genres that I’ve never even heard of, I begin to feel like a person who has just discovered that their partner visits S&M websites after years of the missionary position. I’m not angry; I just want to know why he hasn’t shared any of this stuff with me.

Come on John, for the sake of us both open up a little. This relationship is still intact, but we have some work to do.

(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

James Blake - James Blake (album review)

Have you heard the news? Modern technology is turning us all into robots. It’s true. We spend all day either on Facebook or checking our phones so instead of human contact we’re interfacing with the machine. There’s a lot of mileage in that stuff and, with each new technological leap, I see more novels, films and philosophical tracts exploring the consequences in detail. I, however, have always thought the opposite scenario was more interesting, meaning what would happen if the machines wanted to become human? Yes, it’s all very Blade Runner and chances are, when Artificial Intelligence eventually happens, it won’t be as dramatic and the machines won’t give heart-wrenching speeches as they’re being shut down. The thought, however, remains a compelling one. Is programmed emotion still a genuine emotion? Could a machine acquire humanity through learning and repetition?

I’m asking such questions because, when I listen to James Blake’s self-titled debut album, it feels like the creation of some damaged, unhappy robot trying to figure out what being human means. Mechanised beats stutter underneath repeated lines, each time with a different emphasis on a particular harmony or phrasing, accompanied by backing music which surges and recedes as necessary. Some songs consist of a single sentence repeated over and over, as if trying to unlock the emotion contained within. ‘I Never Learnt to Share’ has the line “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them” sung continuously, slowly building, until suddenly at one minute and 45 seconds we receive a revelation of sorts, as the melody, words and music connect and deliver the emotion that was present all along. The machine simply needed to restart and retry in its quest to uncover the mystery of conscious feeling.

For reasons that I can’t quite fathom, I find the album mesmerising. It manages to be both distant and personal at the same time, unwilling to concede to either feeling. The album’s only false step is the Feist cover ‘Limit to Your Love’. Instead of Blake’s usual lyrics, which come across as fragmented Modernist poetry, we get Feist’s overtly romantic observations. When placed next to his own tortured, mechanised distress signals, the words to ‘Limit To Your Love’ sound fatuous in comparison, a problem made worse by the music’s lack of potency. Elsewhere Blake is magnificently bleak with the vocoder-laden ‘Lindisfarne I’ sounding like ELO if Jeff Lynne had been bombarded with four straight weeks of ECT (trust me, that’s a good thing). At just under two minutes ‘Give Me My Month’ sees Blake’s penchant for gospel-tinged arrangements come into full bloom with the music exuding an air of clipped, majestic perfection. ’The Wilhelm Scream’ is the closest thing on the album to a normal-sounding song (excluding ‘Limit to Your Love’), and it bodes well for Blake that he is capable of making it succeed without compromising his approach in any way. Still in his early twenties, Blake is seemingly able to create full-length songs, fluctuating half-songs and electronic experiments at will, and make them work when juxtaposed with one another.

The entire album has a cerebral feel, making something like North by Darkstar sound positively pop in comparison. The cover art has a David Byrne-esque quality to it, and Blake appears to share Byrne’s quest to avoid easy sentiment, as well as his overtly intellectualised approach, which many can find off-putting. The spare, automated tone of the album can certainly feel desolate and forbidding, but it is this very same desolation that ultimately redeems the whole enterprise. Underneath the loops and treated vocals, hiding behind the fractured lyrical emissions, there lurks a real human being. The humanity that breaks through the electronic veneer sounds distressed and frightened, stopping the music from coming off as a cold, intellectual exercise. Hardly a dubstep Blood On The Tracks, it succeeds more as an album that suggests rather than describes, avoiding heavy sentiment in favour of insinuation, as one senses the concealed consciousness lurking just below the abstract surface. What is emotion, and what are the things that trigger an emotional reaction? Deep inside James Blake’s first full-length release there is an attempt to uncover the answer. Sometimes, though, we must go back to the start and say the same thing all over again several times, in our attempt to convince others that we are, in fact, human beings.

(The original review can be found at Collapse Board)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Odd Future and the music press or: Rape-- That's Entertaintment?

Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (Odd Future for short) are the latest act to set the hype-machine into overdrive. Pitchfork loves them, Jimmy Fallon had some members of the group perform live on his show, and every other indie blog in North America is raving about them. One of the first things you’ll probably read about hip-hop collective Odd Future is that they rap about rape. We’re not just talking about the occasional rape reference to induce a sharp intake of breath; we’re talking continuous rape fantasies and graphic descriptions of sexual assault. Then there’s the homophobia. The word “faggot” is dropped continuously, relentlessly. The next thing you’ll probably notice is that these facts are mentioned more in passing, to clear the air before praise is heaped on the group. An LA Weekly article listed rape as one of the “weird” things they rap about. Weird? I don’t believe I’ve ever heard someone say “This really weird thing happened to me on the way home last night. I got raped”. That’s probably because rape is a hateful, stomach-churning, violent crime that destroys lives and can lead to lifelong depression and suicide. Rape statistics in America indicate that 15%-20% of all women have been the victim of it. Odd Future themselves appear not care about any of these things, indeed their defenders claim that the fact that they “don’t give a fuck” is what makes their whole output so exhilarating. Nobody seems to be asking the group to explain their misogyny or homophobia; nobody is questioning their gleeful recounting of female debasement and humiliation. Some of their biggest admirers, including the writer of the above mentioned LA Weekly piece, are even female. What the hell is going on here?

It goes without saying that one cannot condemn hip-hop’s misogyny and violence without people invoking artists like Nick Cave or Johnny Cash, in an attempt to show hypocrisy and racial bias in the writer’s viewpoint. This, however, is not a blanket condemnation of hip-hop. (Compared to Odd Future’s violent rape-porn fantasies Snoop Dogg sounds positively old-fashioned. At least it all sounded consensual!)  This is a blanket condemnation of the spineless, pseudo-intellectual garbage that has followed in the wake of Odd Future’s rise to fame. The problem is not really Odd Future as such, but the reaction of music writers. Gasp in amazement as you read article after article about the shocking nature of Odd Future’s lyrics, only to have the writer excuse them in some way, either by downplaying their hateful nature or by spinning some tortuous double-think about how Odd Future are exposing us to the very things we fear, about how their ability to shock provides some kind of sick but intoxicating adrenaline rush, about how young they are. Someone should introduce these people to the music of Skrewdriver. For those not in the know, Skrewdriver were a vile white-supremacist punk band. One wonders whether Pitchfork would find their racism exhilarating.

 Here’s where we get to the heart of the problem. Sexism is always excused and it is certainly the path of least resistance for those wishing to appear edgy. Pitchfork would never take the time to defend the songs of white teenagers who fired off fantasies about torturing African-Americans no matter how good the music was. Would any black man or woman in their right mind be excited about an artist who wrote racist fantasies in song after song? Did anyone from the LGBT community come out in support of Buju Banton, extolling the virtues of “Boom Bye Bye”? So why are so many members of the press, including women, so keen to push the positive aspects of Odd Future? Simply because the music is good? Apparently, though I don’t think it’s that simple. In online publications like Pitchfork, or in any publications that cover “alternative” music, racism is never tolerated. If a white artist were to continuously use the N-word in song after song it would be the subject of every interview, and their youth would not be considered a good reason to ignore the overall sentiments. If the artist insisted it was a joke or that they were merely trying to shock, it would not be considered an acceptable answer and rightly so. Racism should be questioned, countered and eradicated as much as humanly possible. Homophobia and sexism are often given a free pass but, at least within the LGBT community, homophobic artists are not championed. So why is sexism excused and why are women some of the people excusing it? On a larger scale the problem is societal. We live in a patriarchal society where a woman’s every move is subject to over-analysis. Within the narrower world of pop-culture and music writing, however, I see another element at play.

It has been noted by more than a few observers that most of the people talking up Odd Future are middle-class Pitchfork reading types, the kind of people that many would label hipsters. Among this demographic there’s a certain embarrassment at being middle-class. Suburbia is seen as the home of mediocrity, a hotbed of denied passions and smiling blandness. For this reason certain members of the middle-class have developed an obsession with being authentic, with being ‘real’. This is often played out in rather tiresome but ultimately harmless ways, for example the music labeled Americana. Hip-hop too is often embraced as an authentic alternative to stifling middle-class mores, with misogyny and homophobia regularly excused or overlooked.  Those who do take the time to criticise these aspects of hip-hop are more often than not seen as hypocrites, racists or just plain uptight Tipper Gore-esque meddlers. The case of Odd Future, however, is way beyond the standard misogyny and homophobia of hip-hop or rock. It is certainly not the kind of lyrical output normally celebrated in the “alternative” press. It appears that the championing of Odd Future is an attempt to connect stifled and emotionally dead middle-class music fans with a taste of something genuinely shocking and, when it comes to being shocking, misogyny is always the answer. Racism won’t work, homophobia will be challenged at some point, but misogyny will be given a free pass. In our current climate refusing to listen to Odd Future because they rap so relentlessly about rape and homophobia is seen as a worse offence than reveling in rape fantasies. Don’t you have a sense of humour? Can’t you get past the rape stuff and get into the music? It’s just like the shock Elvis created when he swiveled his hips! Worse, none of the members of the press are asking Odd Future serious questions about anything. Maybe they don’t want to blow their credibility by asking Tyler the Creator (most prominent OFWGKTA member) a challenging question. The endorsement of Odd Future gives the perfect example of college-age middle-class values; timid, passive, afraid of being inauthentic, afraid of not having the correct mindset, afraid of being seen as self-righteous, afraid of being labeled closed-minded and afraid of taking the wrong thing seriously. As a result Odd Future get a free ride to fame and nobody wants to dwell too long on how disturbing their lyrical content is.

The furor surrounding the usage of the N-word can be summed up like this: the N-word was used to dehumanise African-Americans and has since been reclaimed by them. They now own the word, and there is a sense of justice in this reclaiming. All well and good, but when it comes to words that are used to dehumanise women or members of the LGBT community things are different (or more ‘complex’, a word often used by people to mean “I go along with this societal convention but reject others for reasons I don’t really understand, other than I can probably get away with doing one but not the other”). The words ‘bitch’ and ‘faggot’ are not truly owned by those that the words themselves are meant to dehumanise. They are still owned by society, which means they are still owned by the perpetrators not the victims. On a larger scale the degradation of women is still seen as a fitting subject for male artists to tackle, and it is the protective cover of the blanket term ‘Art’ that allows many male artists to both fetishise and intellectualise their fascination and disgust with femininity and the female body. The arts in general seem unwilling to place men in emasculating scenarios, suggesting that most artists are far more comfortable having degradation foisted on a female victim. A victimised woman is the artistic equivalent of the Victorian housewife; she is in her culturally approved place. It allows the artist to shock while still obeying unspoken guidelines. If Odd Future are to be given the protective term of artist then another problem arises, namely that many writers are choosing to ignore the more disturbing lyrical elements of Odd Future’s output and focus on the positive musical ones. This is a problem because it is a disservice to Odd Future. Artists put things in their work for a reason, and music writers who ignore the reason are insulting both their readership and Odd Future.

Beyond the term 'art' the other reason why offensive subjects are forgiven is in the name of humour or shock value. This, however, more often than not follows unspoken guidelines.  For instance, the makers of “South Park” will play fast and loose with the word “bitch” or the phrase “that’s gay” for comedic purpose and give no context, but when it came to the N-word it had to be placed in a very specific satirical storyline that allowed them to use the word in an approved fashion. The N-word needs a context; terms like “faggot” and “bitch” do not. If people are truly concerned about things being too PC they should be pushing for everyday usage of the N-word, but of course they are not. Even shock value has its approved limits. I should be clear that I am not asking for censorship of Odd Future, nor am I trying to induce a moral panic. I am simply asking that Odd Future, and in particular Tyler the Creator (who seems the most obsessed with rape), be treated like intelligent, moral human beings. I am asking for an interviewer to risk upsetting them by asking them difficult questions. I do not think that any members of the group are actually rapists, but I think a refusal from the press to ask them any serious questions about the nature of their lyrics indicates a certain comfortableness with what should be seen as an utterly shocking subject matter. Praise for Odd Future completely outweighs any criticism, yet people still express anger that anyone should want to question them, that anyone should find their output a little too extreme for their taste. Eager to place themselves on the winning side of a potentially polarising cultural moment, many Odd Future defenders laugh off the idea that there is any controversy of any kind, all the time denying that the smell of controversy was what drew them to Odd Future in the first place.

In the LA Weekly article about Odd Future we are briefly introduced to Syd, a young woman who sometimes engineers their music. Even though Syd’s back-story constitutes a tiny portion of the article, the writer still has to point out that she is “arrestingly beautiful”. At no point does the author evaluate the physical attractiveness of Odd Future themselves. The article’s entire tone is completely forgiving of Odd Future’s fascination with rape scenario’s and I wonder why a woman could be so comfortable not merely excusing but actively endorsing such lyrical obsessions, as well as indulging in music writing clich├ęs usually reserved for men (focusing on a woman’s looks). Straight men’s willingness to overlook hateful language against women or gay men as long as it provides a few laughs (or some aesthetic pleasures) is off-putting but somewhat understandable, since they are not the ones being endlessly victimised. Femininity, be it in females or males, continues to be seen as weak, pathetic and even repulsive by many members of society, and it is more than a little depressing to see this viewpoint go unquestioned by writers who clearly consider themselves liberal in thought and deed. Rape is a crime and, in the majority of cases, women are the victims -- almost one in five when it comes to America. When the need to be open-minded or edgy overrules the need to be inquiring about an overwhelming societal problem, and it’s usage in art and entertainment, then things have taken a disturbing turn for the worst.

Recently a representative of the Toronto police force caused an outrage by claiming that women could avoid being victimised by not dressing like “sluts”. This culminated in a SlutWalk on April the 3rd, with at least 1500 people hitting the streets of Toronto to both protest the offending comment and to celebrate a woman’s right to be a sexual being without fear of reprisals. From all accounts the event was a success and, as a result, something ugly was turned into something truly inspiring. I include this little piece of information in order to show what organised indignation can result in. Women have the right to feel safe and protected within society, and they have a right to feel disgusted with those who attempt to intellectualise the adolescent fantasies of over-bored teenagers and twenty-somethings whose main subject is female debasement. I’m not excusing Odd Future in this debacle, but the truth is that suburban America is full of male teenagers with nasty, vengeful thoughts in regards to the female populace. Anyone with a fully working brain and heart would question such violent fascinations on sight, but instead Odd Future have had the red carpet laid down for them. Whatever the factors behind it, and there are undoubtedly many, the fact remains that the press coverage documenting Odd Future’s rise to fame has been morally bankrupt in every sense. The outrage that would greet race-killing fantasies from white teenagers is missing and not because of any kind of race-based bias from the ‘liberal media’. The outrage is missing because misogyny is not treated with the same seriousness as racism, because large parts of the male population still hold shockingly moronic views on female sexuality and femininity, because many females still don’t see a problem with violent rape fantasies, because many men still feel that endless misogynistic ‘jokes’ are ultimately harmless and that everyone should just get a sense of humour, because artistic fetishisation of female suffering is still very much the norm. I’m not convinced that the ability to remain unmoved no matter what the subject makes us better people. Nobody wants to make things uncomfortable by getting serious and nowhere more so than in the dorm rooms and apartments of the middle-class. Being desensitized to the horrors of our world may help you deal with life (and provide you with an excellent social persona), but it doesn’t help the victims, and it doesn’t change a thing about the conditions which cause misogyny to thrive. I suppose if we can’t stop rape, we may as well be thoroughly entertained by it.  Just try not to be too vocal with your discomfort though. Nobody likes a buzz-kill.


An earlier version of this essay appeared on a music website which I contribute to called Collapse Board. It caused much debate, and I quickly saw much in the essay that I disliked and wished to revise. I wish to thank all those who respectfully disagreed, contributed helpful critiques and also those who agreed with the sentiments. I made changes because I did not want the essay's shortcomings to interfere with the overall point, which I still hold to be true.