13 December 2012

15 Albums for December :: Day 2, Radiohead, Kid A

I have albums that I know will come out at least once a year, in December. I may gear them up for listening before that, but when December hits, they stay in heavy rotation. Something about them always conjures up feelings of colder temperatures, loneliness and isolation, and a nostalgic mixture of a festive holiday season coupled with happy memories. These albums document my experiences in December. Enjoy.

Radiohead, Kid A
(Capitol, October, 2000)
Kid A is the definition of sterile. It's cold, unwelcoming at times, abrasive in its neutrality, and utterly bleak in its context. But, it's also really fucking good. There's so much about Kid A that's already been tread and retread that I won't waste time here going over what everyone already knows. (But I will say that Marvin Lin wrote a phenomenal 33 1/3 Series book about Kid A.) Instead, here are some randomly collected thoughts inspired by Kid A:

-Discovering the creepy booklet behind the CD holder may have been the coolest experience I've had with a CD
-Like Marvin Lin, I, too, fell asleep during my first listen to Kid A
-Listening to "Treefingers" in stereo surround sound is frighteningly beautiful 
-Often I walk around the house putting away toys, books, etc, thinking "everything in its right place"--it makes me feel like a machine
-Kid A is the only album expressly about global warming
-Kid A was released in October 2000; it is eerie how much it foreshadows our national decline
-Nothing about Kid A seems out of place, even 12 years later
-I have never listened to this album in my car, only in my home or on headphones
-I have never skipped a track on this album
-I have never stopped this album before it was over
-I have never
-I have 

04 December 2012

15 Albums for December :: Day 1, Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreak

I have albums that I know will come out at least once a year, in December. I may gear them up for listening before that, but when December hits, they stay in heavy rotation. Something about them always conjures up feelings of colder temperatures, loneliness and isolation, and a nostalgic mixture of a festive holiday season coupled with happy memories. These albums document my experiences in December. Enjoy. 

Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreak
(Roc-A-Fella Records, 2008)
I will try as hard as I can not to veer into the realm of the intensely personal when making this list. It's going to be difficult, though. Many, if not all, of these albums touch on brutally personal themes and/or are entirely indicative of personal conflicts I was experiencing at the time of their release and 808s and Heartbreaks may be the single-most album that falls directly into this category. 

I'm not a huge Kanye fan; I found My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to be overlong and overhyped (read the title for God's sake) and thought Late Registration was weighed down by stupid skits and guest spots. But as I was browsing the wasteland of new releases at the record store in late November, 2008 (Kanye has a thing for releasing albums near the end of the year), 808s and Heartbreak was the only release that intrigued me.

Kanye was in a reflective mood on 808s; his mother had passed away unexpectedly and his relationships were becoming increasingly volatile and public. So, he did what most people do in that situation: he withdrew into himself, discovered auto-tune, and made a record. 808s is definitely the oddball album in Kanye's backlog. It's confessional to a fault and darker than most listeners realize ("life's just not fair" he repeats breaking down on "Street Lights"). There are no club jams, unless you count the tribal rhythms of "Love Lockdown," but that's stretching things. And everything about it sounds and feels cold, distant, and utterly electronic. His vocals are masked under ten kinds of filters ("Real Bad News," "Street Lights") and even the beats sound minimal and melancholy ("Say You Will," "Heartless," "Amazing"). 

It's easy to read 808s as a phony cash-in on genuine suffering; Kanye, after all, doesn't earn much good will through his public feuds and juvenile antics. But 808s sounds like sadness pushed though a micro filter and disseminated into digestible parts, the only way true sadness can be dealt with; piece by piece, one day at a time, until it's small enough to manage. 808s and Heartbreak is the sound of Yeezey cutting himself open and asking for help the only way he knows how, very publicly but very reservedly. It's cold, bruising, and imminently listenable. 

30 November 2012

Spotify Playlist :: December 2012

Hey friends and readers--I made you all a playlist for the month of December. Because I love you. It's a playlist filled with loneliness, darkness, light, hope, joy, despair, death, drinking, and religion. December is a lonely time for some, and special time for others. Here's to us getting through it together, with or without medication.

Some notes on the playlist if you're so inclined to read those sorts of things:

1. The Clientele, "Since K Got Over Me" - Asheville through Sam's Gap, all the way to Kinsport, TN - frigid winds - "it's like walking on a trampoline"

2. Wilco, "I Might" - borrowed my brother's car, it smelled like Old Spice and onions - "you won't set the kids on fire, oh, but I might"

3. My Morning Jacket, "Xmas Curtain" - out of college, applying for shitty jobs - the sparseness of winter air - "the criminal who never breaks the law"

4. Sun Kil Moon, "Carry Me Ohio" - early damp mornings, teaching college - the highways were empty, the countryside a friend - "sorry, I could never love you"

5. Sufjan Stevens, "Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)" - why the heater won't work, I don't know - coffee is too hot to drink - no snow for this year, but definitely snow in Michigan - "Industry! Industry!"

6. Damien Jurado, "December" - taking medication for my mind - wondering where the future is - "cause one day I'll kill you, too"

7. Bob Dylan, "Not Dark Yet" - packed like sardines in an apartment - sharing floorspace with my brother - an early Christmas present "it's not dark yet, but it's getting there"

8. Halloween, Alaska, "The Jealous Ones" - so much traffic - not sure this new year will pay off - "you're half right, you're mostly right"

9. Beach House, "Norway" - January won't stop raining - not alone anymore - where do I go from here? - "we were sleeping til, you came along"

10. Destroyer, "Virgin With a Memory" - mornings last forever - spending money I don't have - a striking warmth here with you - "the singer not the song, no"

11. Ida, "Lovers Prayers" - I may not ever figure this out - so much to do, too much time to do it - you may never finish what you started - "watching the sun turn black in the desert sky"

12. Low, "Long Way Around the Sea" - is this what Christmas can be? shot full of possibilities? - a new faith - "Herod heard, said bring me word"

27 November 2012

15 November 2012

Will Oldham Discography: Entry #1, Part 2

(Palace, There Is No One What Will Take Care of You)
(Palace Brothers, Days In the Wake)

After reviewing Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy for PopMatters, I decided it was time to start an experiment I've always envisioned--listening to an artists' entire discography. And, of course, blogging about it to the excitement of absolutely no one.

Days In the Wake wasn't the first Will Oldham album I heard, but it was the first one that I cared about. To begin, the cover of the album is something altogether unnatural. There is no indication of  album name, artist name, or what the contents might hold. It's cryptic and unsettling in a deliberate and enticing way. Not really knowing (or needing to know) who (or what) the image on the album cover is, makes it appealing. Almost as if the cover were an afterthought, an indirect assertion of murkiness.

But the album cover stands in complete contrast to the music on Days In the Wake. Oldham's voice is clearer, his songwriting has ticked up a notch or two, and there appear to be song structures and chord progressions in fistfuls. "You Will Miss Me When I Burn," despite having one of the best titles in the Oldham catalog, is a defining moment. I hear the early slivers of Oldham finding his voice, identifying with themes that he will return to, and plotting out melodic, repetitive choruses. "In the corners there is light/That is good for you/And behind you, I have warned you/There are awful things," Oldham sings over a distant acoustic guitar. Those are the corners he will spend much of his music exploring, fighting off the awful things behind us.

Days In the Wake has so many affective songs that it's hard to single out just one as beacon. Closer "I Am a Cinematographer" repeatedly makes it onto my late-night playlists and "Pushkin" is as close to a sing-along as we'll get from Oldham at this stage. Even seemingly filler tracks like "Come a Little Dog," complete with dog barks and yelling harmonies is unbroken in its abandon. And "Whither Thou Goest" is just stationary. It's a perfectly competent song, but doesn't hold up against the luster of, say, "(Thou) Without Partner" or "Meaulnes."

"No More Workhorse Blues" is a pivotal centerpiece to Days In the Wake. It's as anthemic as we're apt to get thus far into Oldham's career where he's still tweaking his persona and (literally) tuning his voice. And, so far, there's no better example of that then when he raises his voice up forcefully to declare: "I am no more workhorse, I am a grazing horse." For others it might be an admission of defeat or a declaration of dependency; for Oldham, it sounds like a call to arms.

Highlight Track: Tie between "You Will Miss Me When I Burn" and "I Am a Cinematographer." "Burn" may inch it out by a millimeter, just because of it's stronger lyrical content.
Weakest Track: "Whither Thou Goest" It's not bad, it's just not good.
Strangest Moment: Hearing Oldham bark on "Come a Little Dog"
Other Stray Observations:
  • The album was originally untitled or was self-titled Palace Brothers when it was released
  • The photo on the cover is apparently someone drinking a pint of beer
  • Complete album runtime is 26 minutes and 55 seconds
  • Do not try to listen to this album in your car--it does not work. Listen to it on vinyl or with headphones. 
  • I think "Come a Little Dog" is the only track with other musicians besides Oldham.
  • Much like Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, this album seems to thrive on its own simplicity. And, like Nebraska, it was released at a time when excess in commercial music was de rigueur--April, 2004. Now that I've just written that statement, I think there's a good essay to be written about those two albums together.

08 November 2012

Will Oldham Discography: Entry #1, Part 1

(Palace, There Is No One What Will Take Care of You)
(Palace Brothers, Days In the Wake)

After reviewing Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy for PopMatters, I decided it was time to start an experiment I've always envisioned--listening to an artists' entire discography. And, of course, blogging about it to the excitement of absolutely no one.

To begin with, I'm biased towards Days In the Wake. I had never heard There Is No One before I started this bustling journey. And while it might be unfair to compare these two LPs together in the same post, I think they work together as a duo and as a primer to the realm of Will Oldham's music.

There Is No One is brazen in its amateurishness. Oldham's voice cracks several times on key tracks, tempos shift sporadically, and the mix could never be defined as "clear." On songs like "King Me" and "I Tried to Stay Healthy For You," Oldham's vocals are frustratingly buried underneath louder acoustic instruments that reach into the higher, ear-piercing registers of your brain. (Especially that slide guitar that shows up on "O Paul" which somehow manages to jab a nerve repeatedly when it shows up.) It's a understandable move; Oldham sounds vocally confident on some tracks, but nearly as much as he does on Days In the Wake. This is, after all, his first recorded material. Prior to this he was starring in films and theater productions. Most artists work hard on their early albums to mask the singers' voice. Lennon famously double-tracked his vocals at almost every chance he got because he didn't like the way he sounded and Jimi Hendrix never believed that he was able to sing at all, hence all the spoken phrases in his songs. But Oldham definitely has a go-for-broke delivery on There Is No One, and some of the best tracks are the ones where he sounds like he doesn't give a fuck how his voice sounds: opener "Idle Hands Are the Devil's Playthings," "King Me" with it's spoken pulpit-sermon bridge, and "Riding" with all its low-register menace and lyrically vague notions of incest.

Then there's "I Was Drunk At the Pulpit," a song made up entirely of one chord on acoustic guitar and Oldham's singing. One chord and one only. And there are natural times when a chord change is warranted, but Oldham ignores them, instead forging ahead with his lone chord like it's him and his guitar against a hostile audience. It's more than clear that Oldham is finding his way through the songwriting process, feeling in the dark for some solid form to grab hold of. But it does feel like Oldham threw out the rules, decided on simplicity only, and made a record just to see if he could. Who knew that such simple beginnings would take him to where he is now?

Highlight Track: Tie between "Idle Hands Are the Devil's Playthings" for just being a great song that gets stuck in your head and "Riding" because it sounds like a Bonnie "Prince" Billy song before BPB existed.

Weakest Track: For some reason, "O Lord Are You In Need?" turns me off. Too plodding? Too repetitive?

Strangest Moment: Probably waiting in vain for the chord to change in "I Was Drunk at the Pulpit"

Other Stray Observations:
  • "Long Before" definitely feels like it is six minutes long. It's a big let down and momentum killer after "Idle Hands"
  • "There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You" is sung by someone else--but I don't know who.
  • "Merida" is oddly forgettable. I was hoping based on its title that it wouldn't be.
  • "King Me" was apparently Oldham trying to be Solomon Burke. 
  • "I Had a Good Mother and Father" is a cover song by Washington Phillips. Gilliam Welch also covers it on Soul Journey but it is listed as "I Had a Real Good Mother and Father." I would not have known that without first reading Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy

01 November 2012

PopMatters Review: Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy

(Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy, W.W. Norton, 2012)
New book review available for you to read on PopMatters. Read and enjoy at this link (or click the image above).

And follow along as I plow through most all of Will Oldham's discography, starting with his first two albums, Palace's There is No One What Will Take Care of You, and Palace Brothers' Days In the Wake.

17 October 2012

WHY? – Mumps, etc. « Stereo Subversion

You guys, I love WHY? And I love this record. It may not be the best of their lot, but it is still really damn good. You should listen to it--after reading my review, of course. 

(WHY?, Mumps, etc, Anticon, 2012)

05 October 2012

The Bonnie Prince and His Backlog

Last post, I raved about Mr. Ben Towle (who really is a great guy--I cannot stress this enough) and his recent undertaking of listening to the entire discography of The Cure. At the risk of coming off unoriginal (who am I kidding, I am nothing if not unoriginal), I have always toyed with the idea of digging through the back catalogs of favorite artists and bands and listening to them chronologically. Then blogging about it to the two of you who may be interested. Well, the time has come to let the world's greatest experiment begin. I will now begin listening to Bonnie "Prince" Billy's entire catalog...sort of.

I'm going to lay out some rules for my listening, since Bonnie (aka Will Oldham, aka Palace, aka Palace Brothers) has had his filthy fingers in nearly everyone's musical pies. So, the rules are thus:

1. Only full LPs will be considered. For this, I am consulting Alan Licht's extensive discography in the rear of his book, Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy. (Which I am currently reading to review for PopMatters.)
2. Collaborations, as long as they are full LPs will be considered.
3. Instrumental albums and soundtracks will not be considered.
4. Rules 1, 2, and 3 are subject to change at my discretion.

I have a long way to go. And because Bonnie is not on Spotify, I am relying on my vast collection of CDs and LPs to complete this challenge.

First up is Palace Brothers, There is No-One What Will Take Care of You. Sit tight, it might be a long ride.

28 September 2012

Who Will Survive After LIstening to the ENTIRE Cure Discography?

Ben Towle, that's who. Artist extraordinaire and all-around swell guy who took some time out of packed schedule of drawing funny books to listen to the ENTIRE discography by The Cure. Now, most of you may or may not know that The Cure is one of my favorite bands. I have had a man-crush on Robert Smith since he captured my crippled teenage heart back in 1992. But, listening to their entire discography is no easy feat, as evidenced by Mr. Towle's post on the subject. (Click the image below, too, for a link.)

Coincidentally, I was planning on performing this very same exercise, but got stuck once I hit the dark majesty of their album, Pornography. Not to take over Mr. Towle's idea (who really is a swell guy, I must say), but I will be performing this listening feat in the near future with The Cure, and then, likely, say U2. Or R.E.M. Or Neil Young. Or Fugazi. Doesn't that sound like fun?! Yeah, I thought so.
Robert Smith didn't quite nail that Walking Dead audition.

27 September 2012

You are a Target: The Daily You

New book review up at PopMatters. Thanks for reading.
(The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth, Joseph Turow, 2012)

Somebody Give Billy Corgan a Trophy (For Real)

I am only a little more than halfway through this interview with Billy Corgan, but already I can unequivocally say that he deserves a trophy for telling it like it is. We've shunned so many people in favor of codified "cool" that it no longer pays for an artist to create new work any longer. Or, as Corgan puts it:

But isn’t it funny how alternative culture likes to turn its back on those they don’t consider attractive. There is a narcissistic subtext to alternative culture that runs through its veins. Why do most people turn to alternative culture? Because they grow up in a family system or community system that doesn’t recognize their specialness or sensitivity or uniqueness, and they find that there are voices in the alternative community that represent them — whether they’re gay or lesbian or the pretty, overweight goth girl, or the outcast or whatever. They look at alternative culture and they say, “That’s the land of lost toys, there’s the place for me.” And we’ve seen this thing happen over the last 25 years — afforded by the Internet — where that narcissistic streak has become a business model.

Go read the rest at Stereogum at this link. Props all around for a great interview. 

Oh, and Oceania is really fucking good, too.

(Update: Just finished reading the rest of it. It did not disappoint. Especially when Corgan takes Stephen Malkmus to task for going on a "money run.")

25 September 2012

Welcome back, Professor

Hi there.  Did you miss me?  I missed you. I went away for a few years, but now I'm back. Aw, baby, don't be like that. I've tried all the other girls. I had a little relationship with WordPress and LiveJournal. I still have a Tumblr on the side. But I'm ready to give it a go again with you, Blogger. You look all sexy now. Have you lost weight? Yeah, I thought so. Come on, baby. Don't be mad at me. I promise I'll only post on you now. You're the only one for me. See? I'll even put my latest review from Stereo Subversion up here. It's for XXL, Dude. That's the Xiu Xiu and Larsen collab. Just click the album cover below. All better? I love you. 

XXL, Dude (Tin Angel Records, 2012)