Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Great War in Modern Memory

Yeah, I know that's not the title of the book.

PJ Harvey just put out a new album, Let England Shake, that I cannot recommend enough. It's about the First World War, and it seems absolutely appropriate for today. The century that began at Waterloo with the demise of Napoleon ended 1914, and it seems that--much more so than 1989--another century is ending right now. Economics as we know it doesn't work any more, the Middle East is eating itself, and China is slowly supplanting the US.

Pre-millennial tension produces great music, like Tricky's 1996 album, Pre-Millenium Tension.

Tricky - Christiansands (live, with a nuclear-powered bass amp)

But fast forward 15 years to 2011, and that's not the sound we have. PJ Harvey's new album isn't so much pre-millennial tension as it is post-funereal elegy.

PJ Harvey - Written on the Forehead

That's a sentiment that must be even stronger in the UK, where they seem to have taken their economic crisis by the horns and recognized their decline far more firmly than we have in the US. US culture continues to produce either degenerate art like Katy Perry and Justine Bieber (nope, no links here) or rage.

Tyler, the Creator and Hodgy Beats - Sandwitches

Note here the same underlying drone, low frequency rumble, and static that were all over Tricky and Massive Attack's best at the turn of the century. It's like paranoia has its own sonic footprint.

But that sound is not really there in PJ's album. Her album is a eulogy or a lament. One of the things that caught my attention was her sample in Written on the Forehead of Niney the Observer's Blood and Fire. How interesting is it that a requiem for an empire would quote from an outgrowth of that empire? Even more interesting is that during the 1970s, a similarly low period in England, they also borrowed from Jamaican music and launched the 2 Tone Ska. I wonder if that's a sign of England having exhausted itself, or is it a sign of hybrid vigor?

Niney the Observer - Blood and Fire

But the real sound of Let England Shake is very English. PJ in The Last Living Rose (how much more elegiac can you get?) used a jangly, reverby guitar and out-of-tune saxamaphones that recall skiffle and early early rock. No homage to Bollywood here, if anything, it's an inward turn: "God damned Europeans - take me back to beautiful England - and the gray damp filthiness of ages and battered books." The words of a homesick English soldier on the Western Front?

PJ Harvey - The Last Living Rose

This is not a fully formed thought in my head yet, and I'm still working it out, but I'm wondering what we'll start quoting as we realize that our imperial moment has passed.

I'm pretty sure that in rough times like these, in the US we'll fall back on something similarly culturally conservative. It probably won't be as backwards looking as the indie-folk scene in the UK--denial and optimism are too ingrained in the US--but I wonder if the sound will be the garage rock revival that started in about 2000 or so with acts like the Strokes, the White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, the 5,6,7,8s, Ty Segall, etc. It's been vaguely popular for about 10 years now, but it can certainly go even more mainstream. Or, acts like Toro y Moi and Caribou are quoting heavily from the late 70s and early 80s, certainly not a conservative period, but a familiar sound, and further back than it should be if it were just part of the usual 20-years-gone revivals.

Ty Segall - It #1

Toro y Moi - Still Sound

Caribou - Odessa

But the other possibility is an even stronger turn to Americana. Where country and bluegrass recover from the nightmarish 80s and 90s and return to their roots:

Hank III -Long Gone Daddy (yup, that's the grandson...I've seen him live, this is not really what he does, but the resemblance is uncanny)

Justin Townes Earle -Mama's Eyes (Unlike the Williamses, only 2 generations of geniuses far)

Hayes Carill - KMAG YOYO

Brief word on Carill....fascinating to me that he's writing a song about the war in Afghanistan, and equally fascinating that it hearkens back to Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues. Good show on how old stuff can be revisited without choking on nostalgia, I think.

But anyway, I hope the rage bit wins, because that's a much more constructive sentiment than nostalgia. But if we go the route of elegy ourselves, and have a wake for America, here's the soundtrack...provided by an Irishman:

The Pogues - Body of an American ("Put the fuckin' song on, Hugh!")

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The good, the bad, and the ugly of live music

OK, in no particular order culled from stuff I've seen over the years:

This is awful (don't watch it) . . .

. . . but I've seen almost as bad (I told you not to watch it, didn't I?). Just to demonstrate how masochistic I am, I'll tell you I watched this 3-4 times to figure out what went wrong. I would say it was the bassist's fault--he can't find the one to save his life--but that would be like blaming Gavrilo Princip for World War I. (It's not like this is a hard song, it's straight ahead 4/4. WTF?) Anyway, I'm not so masochistic that I'd stick around for this. First pet peeve: lazy bands. I WILL walk out before you finish your 35 minute set. So take that.

What I really wanted to get into was behavior that annoy me at live shows. Proper comportment will not only not annoy those around you, but it will also impress the band. Remember, they are there to judge you just as you are there to judge them.

1. The hippy-dippy dance:

Unacceptable. 1.) These movements are neither graceful nor flowing. They make me want to put a wallet in your mouth and make sure there are no sharp edges around. 2.) These people--lost in their selfish dreamworld without regard for anyone else--take up loads of space and clumsily knock into others who just want to enjoy the music 3.) If this is possibly acceptable amongst other hippies at some godforsaken hellish hippy jam band festival in a muddy field when you're high on toad skins, it is certainly NOT/NOT acceptable anywhere else--least of all in my presence. I did once, however, enjoy seeing the shock and horror on the faces of such hippy-dippy idiots at a "world music" show when the band turned out to be more capable of rocking out than their condescending Orientalist asses were expecting. Corollary: You may do the following dances: "The stand still," "the subtle head head bob," "the knee-dip-in-time-to-the-back-beat," the pogo, the Charleston, anything that resembles Guy Picciotto (but beware, do it badly, and you're a hippy-dippy shithead). The best moves I've ever seen? A guy who was wildly swinging a full drink around over his head in a pint glass without spilling a single drop. Clearly, an alcoholic.

2. Talking

ARRRRRRRGH!!!  The bane of my existence. I once learned quite a bit about shoes at a Junip show because two idiot college kids talked non stop in high-pitched, squeaky voices throughout the whole thing. I have also learned about Rolexes, BMWs, and other things that were too prolie for them from two yuppies at a The French Band Air show (they didn't know what they were talking about, which made it even funnier). Maybe this works if you're out to see a mindless pop act; it's not acceptable at a serious show. You might be there because you're bored, because you want to be seen, because you want to say you were there. Some of us are there because we're obsessive compulsive and have nothing else in our lives (except collections of vinyl and comic books). Corollary: You may make brief comments on the music, especially if you make pretentious comparisons to seminal indie bands ("the drummer reminds me of Richard Edson's days with Sonic Youth"), talk about times you saw the band "before they were big," or snark bored condescending comments. And yes, Richard Edson, the parking attendant from Ferris Bueller, was the original drummer with Sonic Youth.

3. Bad band banter

Banter from the band is not mandatory; (The Man Himself) Mark Lanegan has about as much personality on stage as Mount Everest. Done well, however, it can be an integral part of the show (even if scripted). I think my all time favorite was Frances McKee of the Vaselines discussing her secret to keeping a clear complexion. (Frances and Eugene were two of the loveliest, most gracious performers I've ever seen in my life, btw. I think every man and woman at the 9:30 left that show with a mad crush.)

But if you're going to chat with the audience, please make sure you're witty and have something interesting to say. Please do not pander to the crowd by telling them they're "the best crowd we've had on the tour yet" or talk about alcohol unless you're channeling the spirit of Charles Bukowski; booze is not "cool" unless you're 16.

4. "WOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!"

Danger, Will Robinson. Solo WOOOOO! during a lull in the music sucks. If a band wants silence, that's part of the music. Don't ruin it by making an ass of yourself. Corollary: I once saw a young girl having a near crisis over a foppish lead singer. The "OMG it's the Beatles!" scream is a little annoying, but it is what it is: slightly amusing for the rest of the crowd, especially if there's only one person doing it. (btw, God bless DC for all ages shows.)

 Ooooh! A tone box!

Wanted to take a break from whining to ask a question. Dear readers, do any of you obsessively scribble down set lists in a little pad during the show? It's a weird hobby. Kind of like bird watching, I guess. Just curious if anyone did it and why. Anyway, it's innocuous and doesn't bother me (I kind of respect that degree of obsessiveness), I was just curious.

5. Scalpers, ticket brokers, and ticket resale sites.


6. Tall people.

Yeah, not their fault. Corollary: To the 6'4" 280 pound manimal at the Bradford Cox show who picked me up like a rag doll and placed me down in front of him, saying, "stand in front of me," you're cool, though.

So why bother putting up with this nonsense?

Because Nick Cave puts most Pentacostal preachers to shame.

Because Los Campesinos! can make even a clumsy idiot like me feel like Fred Astaire.

Because Lighting Bolt prove there's nothing like being hot and sweaty (with all your clothes on). btw, I wonder if it's the same guy hanging from the ceiling at every Lighting Bolt show?

Because sometimes for $8 you accidentally find something wonderful like the Luyas.

Because Iggy Pop can do with his body what John Coltrane did with a saxophone. (His words, not mine, unfortunately.)

Because Mark Lanegan is like any other man, only more so.

Because Mogwai make me feel all frozen and floaty like I'm having a stroke.

Support live music. Only go to arena shows if you hate freedom and you want the terrorists to win. (You--and if you're reading this, you know who you are--get a dispensation if you're seeing LCD Soundsystem's farewell at MSG...even an epic venue snob like I would suck it up to go to that one.)