Monday, September 20, 2010

Grinderman 2: A Real Cool Time?

Grinderman have a song called "No Pussy Blues." You probably know this if you've read a review of their debut, self-titled album, many of which were almost entirely given over to descriptions of the track. You may even have read about the song in the reviews of Grinderman 2, which does not feature "No Pussy Blues."

In an effort to dispel the myth that "No Pussy Blues" is the only Grinderman song, I'll take a look at the nine songs on the band's week-old sophomore effort. I also hope to debunk that other fiction, that the band, which includes Nick Cave, Martyn Casey, Warren Ellis, and Jim Sclavunos--four-sevenths of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds--hearken back to Cave's first group, the truly depraved Birthday Party. No ratings this time, since I don't feel like it.

1. Mickey Mouse And The Goodbye Man
Martyn Casey's strident bassline anchors Grinderman 2's fiery opener, with each note landing with the thud of a typewriter run through a stack of Marshalls (a typewriter can be heard at the start of...a certain song from the last album). The other Grindermen merely augment Casey. When the chorus hits, things explode outwards, in a mess of noise that would do Ron Asheton proud, while the verses are exercises in finely controlled tension. The lyrics--something about a just-awoken creep, his brother, and a "lupine child" who is literally aflame--are hardly Cave's finest moment, but his genius is as a performer, and this is a good performance.

2. Worm Tamer
Part of Grinderman's appeal is that such talented men have set their sights so low. "Worm Tamer" is a grimy song, with dirty lyrics that include the already-famous couplet "Well my baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster/Two great big humps and then I'm gone." All well and good, but Grinderman approach garage rock with nuance: the song rises and falls with its backing vocals, staggering along with the crunch of whatever strange instrument Ellis is playing, and generally sounding like the misplaced anger that consumes a man's head moments before he makes the sort of decision you cant un-make.

3. Heathen Child
Already written-up here. I've become more slightly fond of this song in the past six weeks. I still find the tension/release ratio, especially at the pivotal moment where tension becomes release, to be lacking, but the unsettling bounce gets me through. Love the part where Cave's rejoinder to our delusions is always "YOU ARE WRONG."

4. When My Baby Comes
Warren Ellis, who has come to be a dominant force in the Bad Seeds, plays throughout this album with an attention to texture rarely heard in rock music, on instruments like the bouzouki. The two halves of "When My Baby Comes" see him first painting a creeping disquiet, via knotted instrumentation and rude interjections, and then crafting a trance-like abandon (with a large assist from Casey's Mordor-ish bassline). It's no wonder he scores so many films.

The lyrics on "When My Baby Comes" are probably the most compelling on the album. Cave will recite two lines, sing the title, and then start again, picking up from a different point in space or time. Sung in the first-person, from an institution, they represent the fractured thoughts of a rape victim who dreads visiting hours and is linked to a mysterious, possibly fictional girl whose dealings on the narrator's carpet elicit great anxiety. The structure of the song, from the claustrophobic first half (which features nearly all the lyrics) to the molten ebbs and flows of the second part, mimic the the before and after of the narrator's tragic experience, but also an essentially disjointed mind.

5. What I Know
Consisting mostly of a simple, repeated thump and a quiet melange of stringed instruments, "What I Know" is a disarmingly beautiful track on an album that disavows Boatsman's Call-style gorgeousness. Cave, whose voice is far too loud in the mix, sounds intimate and resigned. The brief lines he spits out at the beginning work well, but he nearly ruins the track with his trademark tics near the end. Not the unequivocal success it might have been, but still mostly lovely.

6. Evil
There's a weird dynamic at work here, as Cave's foolish narrator declares his love for his baby in humiliating and desperate terms, while punkish backing vocals shout "evil!" and "evil rising!" Who's evil? The narrator? Nah, he's just a fool. Then his baby? Perhaps, but we know nothing about her. I suspect Cave is singing from some hellish place, where he feels compelled to pin all his miserable hopes on a woman with no distinguishing characteristics. Wherever the narrator sings, he sounds lost inside the howling noise. The vocals are probably too loud, again, but you don't really notice.

7. Kitchenette
The leering "Kichenette" supplies Grinderman 2's other moment of comedy: "What's this husband of yours ever given to you?/Oprah Winfrey on a plasma screen." Lyrically, this is the closest we get to a "No Pussy Blues" sequel, as Cave begs and pleads for the object of his desire to desert her husband and hideous children ("the ugliest kids I've ever seen") and allow him to make good on his single-entendres. The slowest song yet, all about the low-end, "Kitchenette" doesn't drag, but five minutes is a long time for a tune that exists to let Cave ham it up.

8. Palaces Of Montezuma
Perhaps the least Grinderman of all the tracks on Grinderman 2, "Palaces" wouldn't have sounded out of place among the careening rock and roll operettas of Abbatoir Blues and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! The presence of a piano may have something to do with that, as do the background vocals and complete absence of scuzz. Which is fine, since I think Abbatoir and Lazarus are unbelievable albums. Don't ask me what Miles Davis the black unicorn is supposed to be, though.

9. Bellringer Blues
"Bellringer" would also fit on Abbatoir Blues, which already had a bell-themed tune. For one, there's a more conscious literary bent here, with the talk of soul survivors a possible echo of Exile On Main Street's closer. It's a dense song--like most of the album, it sounds like the work of a much larger band--a T-storm's worth of thunder, lightning and screaming wind. In other words, a fitting end to an excellent album. Grinderman haven't yet put out anything to rival the Bad Seeds' very best, but nor do they sound like anybody's side project.

Friday, September 10, 2010

This Is Exactly What I Am Talking About

The Village Voice's Sound of the City blog just posted an interview with Animal Collective's Panda Bear (we reviewed his new single here), conducted by Stelios Phili (who must be new, I think), entitled "Q&A: Animal Collective's Panda Bear On How He Is Similar To Kanye West." The accompanying tweet, published minutes ago, makes sure to add the "@" in the "@kanyewest" part in. What is the nature of the conversation regarding Mr. West?

I can see how you'd view a solo album in that way, just being dependent on yourself and trusting your own judgment.

Does that mean I have a massive ego? Is there something wrong with that?

No! You're not Kanye, far from it.

I've never been to an award ceremony, so you never know. If you let me loose in that zone, I'm going to go crazy.

This is the sum total of references to how Mr. Bear is "similar to @kanyewest" in the entire article. It's a total aside that has more to do with the differences between Animal Collective and Panda Bear's solo career than it does with anything having to do with a popular rapper's preening, attention-whoring antics. Then Panda Bear makes a joke, and they move on to the subject of how guitar-heavy Tomboy will be. But, for some reason, there's the subject line for the whole article, in the vain fucking hope I suppose that maybe @kanyewest will retweet it to his thousands of followers.

And this is an article that otherwise allows Panda Bear to make interesting points, ranging from his various psychological approaches to writing music to his general response to negative reviews (from one Jim Derogatis). Sure, the tone is as kiss-assy as we have come to expect from the Voice (sample "question": "After living in Portugal with English as your main language, I imagine coming back here, where everyone wants to talk to you, is pretty jarring"), but it's not formless M.I.A. babble either, so that's a plus.

I'm going to continue to document this nonsense, even if it doesn't fall under the strict purview of music criticism, particularly as I become more entrenched in New York's music scene and the trendy, otherwise musically-ignorant vampires that feed from it. I previously referred to the Brooklyn music journo establishment as "click-hungry starfuckers" and I stand by that assertion now more than ever. Play us off, Mick:

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Goddamnit Morrissey

Morrissey is again courting charges of racism with his claim that the Chinese are a "subspecies." It’s hardly the first time he’s made such provocations (around the sixth, I believe), and further indication that his admirable sympathy for animals outweighs his respect for people with darker skin than himself. It’s extremely dispiriting that a man of Morrissey’s intellect has learned nothing from previous controversies.

So what now? Morrissey has already released this non-apology
If anyone has seen the horrific and unwatchable footage of the Chinese cat and dog trade – animals skinned alive – then they could not possibly argue in favour of China as a caring nation. There are no animal protection laws in China and this results in the worst animal abuse and cruelty on the planet. It is indefensible.
About which he is largely correct. But his willingness to paint the situation in terms of racial inferiority is at issue, not the live skinning of animals. Even his statement, which deems--I'm moving his words around here, but I think the meaning is present--the Chinese to be uncaring and cruel. As someone who cares about human and animal rights, I'm aware that horrible abuses take place in that country, but I don't think these abuses are due to subhuman characteristics, or that all Chinese people are responsible for what was likely decided by a small coterie of Beijing bureaucrats.

The Guardian’s Tom Clark notes that, as a singer, we can hardly call on Morrissey to resign. As a fan, I don’t even want that; his trio of 00’s releases, Years Of Refusal, Ringleader of the Tormentors, and You Are the Quarry, were all good-to-great, his best album-length product since the 80’s. Questionable lyrics have cropped up throughout his career—why exhort us to anti-DJ violence in “Panic,” and why doesn’t the “Bengali In Platforms” belong “here”? Although I don't many detect nativist sympathies, many hear them in "The National Front Disco."

These lyrics, along with the public statements Morrissey has made, are difficult to square with his embrace of his Hispanic fanbase. He dedicated 1999's Oye Esteban! tour to these fans, and famously procalimed he wished he was born Mexican. His 2004 comeback single, “First Of The Gang To Die,” was about a charming latino gangster.

I find it extremely odd that Morrissey adores the ethnic group who personify immigration in the United States, where he lived for nearly a decade, while vilifying British immigrants, as he did in 2008. Perhaps, as is so often the case with those who loudly denounce immigration, Morrissey simply doesn’t know the Britons of Bengali descent or Chinese people that he denounces. Maybe if, as with Mexican-Americans, large groups of British minorities became Morrissey fans, he might question his prejudices.

Maybe. But if Chinese people--or anyone else--decide they never want to hear from Morrissey again, I can't say I'd blame them.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Google Maps Is Not Art (Or, I Don't Give A Fuck About My Childhood Home)

Hey, remember what it was like to be a kid, all those years ago? Remember how carefree and energetic you were, how close your circle of elementary school buddies used to be? And then how you all drifted apart? And your parents, they used to be younger too, but now they're significantly older, their minds and bodies succumbing to rot and old age, a few miserable decades left to them at most? Doesn't that realization make you think of your own impending mortality? Doesn't that also make you sad? Don't you want to be a kid again now? Huh? Huh?

If you're a discerning Rockaliser reader, chances are the above questions strike you as banal and trifling, at best. And yet it's likely that, as a discerning fan of indie rock, the Arcade Fire remains one of your favorite bands, even though they've been harping on this same juvenile nostalgia trip for three albums and one EP. Their latest, The Suburbs, manages to literalize this misbegotten homesickness even further: it focuses on Win Butler's early life growing up outside Houston, and while it has significantly more chaff than the previous two LPs, there are still several songs I like a lot, such as the title track (previously reviewed here) and the spirited rocker (!) "Month Of May" (dunno how I feel about songs where the repeated mantra is "rococo rococo" however). Basically, it's a good album, even if it probably isn't enough of my bag to make it on my year-end list. As is the case with a lot of albums.

However. (This is a big however.) I'd like to direct you to a recent video, directed by Chris Milk, for the song "We Used To Wait." Or it's not really a video--it's billed as an "Interactive Film" that utilizes a lot of new HTML5 techniques to make each individual's viewing of the video a bit different. Optimally synchronized with Google Chrome, there's a note at the beginning asking you to type the address of your childhood home. Then the video is basically as follows:

A widescreen browser window pops up in the center of your computer monitor, featuring a set of feet moving swiftly down a dark, empty street. The feet are revealed to belong to a hooded, faceless sprinter who runs in time with the accompanying tune. The camera pans out slowly to show that dawn is approaching, or something. Then, another pop-up appears in the top left corner of your screen, this one featuring a bunch of featureless black birds clustered near a lonely cloud. The guy keeps running as the birds swoop down, and then you notice you're looking at a topside Google view of your neighborhood. Except, digital birds have been added, enough to make you wonder if Tippi Hedren is making a house call. At this point different pop-ups featuring the nameless runner move from corner to corner on your screen; the overhead camera zooms closer toward your house. Then, most terrifyingly, the viewer is treated to a series of shots of your old neighbors' cribs. Following that, the money shot: the runner finally stops to cool down...right in front of your house (in my case, it looked to be about mid-autumn when Google came cruising through my 'hood). The bird's eye zooms out again, and inexplicably another pop-up, this one a blank white space, tells you to "Write a postcard of advice to the younger you that lived there." So I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to write "This is fucking bullshit" in florid, distractingly branching type (drawing anything recognizable, on the other hand, is almost impossible). Then the runner dude pops up again, this time hoofing through negative white space, which leads to the grand finale: those birds perch themselves on your drawing, then fly back into your neighborhood, and together the runner and his bird friends leave a trail of trees that explode out of the ground like mushroom clouds, right in the middle of what is now your ecologically devastated neighborhood. The worst thing is that I already have a perfectly beautiful giant tree in my front yard that is apparently uprooted to make room for Whispy Woods from Kirby 64.

The point of this video couldn't be more clear if the filmmakers added blazing neon signs to every piece of symbolism: it's about your childhood, which is barely even a memory anymore, see? The idea, I guess, is that the viewer should be emotionally floored seeing a relic of his or her childhood, and will therefore be able to finally understand what Win Butler means when he makes inscrutable, Dylanesque points like "Sometimes, we remember bedrooms. And, our parents' bedrooms. And the bedrooms of our FRIENDS!" Freud would love this shit.

But I came away from this video wondering if I'd ever want to listen to the Arcade Fire's music again. I know for a fact that I can never listen to "We Used To Wait" again, period. Whatever value that song used to have in my mind, it has been completely supplanted by a revulsion to the basest form of marketing gimmickry. Is anyone else bothered by how lackadaisical indie bands seem to be about their songs being used as tools for burgeoning technology products and companies? I know that this has been going back at least as long as when U2 was shilling iPods (for free, granted), but this strikes me as a new low. The song becomes just as useless a piece of petty technology as all the cool Canvas 3-D engines and choreographed windows that supposedly represent the future of music videos.

I know I'm probably not the audience for this. Everyone has a relatively different idea of when MTV really started to suck, but I've always held it was from the very beginning: there's something about the music video form that, even at its best, doesn't do much besides sell products and rob people of the ability to think hard on the ineffability of great art. I don't need to tell you that music is an intensely subjective experience, but it's becoming harder and harder for anyone to be convinced that that should continue to be the case. Now all of a sudden, a certain song that was once a conduit for all different sorts of creative impulses is relegated to a particular gimmick or a particular actor. Not many people who watch music videos, I believe, does so because they want to listen to the music. It's a tool for promoting celebrity.

Now you could argue that the Arcade Fire video is a response to that, that by personalizing each viewer's experience the band and the director are bringing a bit of that lost subjectivity back. I don't think it works like that, however: it's even a worse type of imagination-hijacking. Personalized gimmickry is the worst type of gimmickry. What is to be gained by seeing your childhood home in the midst of all this CGI goop? What experience is being evoked other than a generalized Thomas Wolfe-whoops-there-goes-your-childhood malaise? There couldn't be any other reason for having the viewer write a letter to his or her childhood self, an act which should be right there in the dictionary, in big fucking bold letters, under "self-indulgent."

But beyond the goopiness of the premise, there's a sinister, more immediately pressing chewy nougat center. Even a few years ago, I feel it would make anyone uncomfortable to know that their home was being monitored for the purpose of a worldwide interactive map. The only thing the "We Used To Wait" video does relatively successfully is illustrate in Orwellian terms how this country is slowly becoming the world's biggest surveillance state. This isn't a criticism meant to slight the band specifically, since they are from Canada (where the process of monitoring its citizens is a bit more lax, I imagine). But it does suggest uncomfortable facts about the secret surveillance tactics our Executive Branch has been utilizing, unchecked, since 9/11. And if you think that this is less of a concern now that Obama is president, I suggest you read a series of investigative articles entitled "Top Secret America," all published a few months ago in the Washington Post. We as citizens have virtually no say over where the federal government chooses to put video cameras or whom it chooses to wiretap. I've seen the effects of this firsthand: a few days ago, I went down to Harlem by Columbia University with a friend of mine. The immediate area around the heavily-fortified campus looked like a ghost town, and it didn't take me long to realize the reason: there were video cameras pointed at every sidewalk, on every block, even in the alleyways. This was not the case at all five years ago. As one of the articles notes, government officials have to utilize specifically eavesdrop-proof rooms to prevent federal leaks; meanwhile, children are now being taught in elementary school that privacy doesn't exist, and everything they do from a young age will be monitored and judged well into adulthood.

And since this is essentially a Google Chrome project, we can't leave out Google's role in forcibly extracting our search histories, monitoring our e-mails and phone calls, and deriving that knowledge as a means to target our needs and desires with money-directed advertising. And speaking of Orwellian, Google CEO Eric Schmidt was recently quoted as saying that "if you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Is this the man you want to be teaming up with your favorite band?

All this may sound like a far cry from an innocuous interactive video that utilizes a few cool map features. Then again, maybe not. The thing is, it's hard to find a major indie band today that won't whore itself out as long as the cause is benign enough, or as long as the song is shilling for some cool gadget or marketing scheme. The uncool thing, now, is to take artists to task for doing bullshit Converse ads because, after all, there's degrees to selling out, it's all relative, and what's wrong with getting paid if you're essentially allowed to write the same music you would anyway? It's hard to argue with that viewpoint on an aesthetic level. How long until we just do away with albums altogether, and we just download the Arcade Fire app and instead look at the tweets regarding all the incestuous dealings of your favorite bands, see which rapper from Young Money cameos in the new Vampire Weekend video? MTV showed that the logical extension of music videos was doing away with music altogether--how long until our most beloved indie bands start following that same route?

I really don't want to sound strident. For one thing, I don't plan on blaming the Arcade Fire when this country completes its slow slide towards North Korea-type dynastic statism. But they are from Canada--they come from the same country that gave us Neil Young. Could you imagine Mr. Young using one of his song as a vehicle for compartmentalized, dehumanized nostalgia? Has it come to the point where our childhood homes are used as a commodity, sold and resold to us decade by decade, as our memory of what actually made childhood so enjoyable is replaced by visions of intrusive digital trees? As I said before, I already have a perfectly good tree in my old front yard. It has a tunnel. Sometimes when I go back, I eat lunch on its steps. I don't imagine it will be going anywhere soon. But fuck a Google when they come to bulldoze it down.