One Tunguska, Two Tunguska, Three

Cymbals Eat Guitars‘s first record arrived on the front end of the 90s indie revival, enjoying popularity for its declaration that those era- and genre-defining classics like Perfect from Now On were timeless at last and steeped in artful approaches worth revisiting. Their second offering, however–released once we were deep into the 90s rehash–similarly went deeper into the alternative/indie genesis, unabashedly referencing everything from Modest Mouse’s thrash-disco to Rainer Maria’s woe-is-emo to Soundgarden’s alterna-prog. The challenging transition coincided with an effort to smooth their songwriting approaches into an even more impressionistic smear of poetic and sonic musings, blurring the already-barely-there verse-chorus-verse delineations that made their first album just welcoming enough to the general indie-pop audience. What many may have dubbed a sophomore slump rewarded immensely with many listens.

From the beginning, they’ve have an incredible knack to take one or two parts and recreate them with either slight or extreme variations in the tonality, atmosphere, pace, or intensity to produce an organically developing piece that is both familiar and discombobulating. I often come away from their music with that same feeling we note in occasions of deja vu: “I’ve been here before, but it’s different. I’m unsettled.” That unsettled feeling is one I prize most when listening to music, because I know that something’s changed, that I’ll never think about music the same, that someone has shifted the grid I’m used to operating in. Those are transcendent moments. “Another Tunguska,” one of the highlights of the album, appears to address just such moments:

Cymbals Eat Guitars – Another Tunguska

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I love bands that make me do research. What the hell is a Tunguska? Like Ghostface says in the Cuban Linx dyed Wallabees skit: Boom…

According to Wikipedia, in 1908, something exploded in northern Russia, leaving 80 million trees across 2,150 square kilometers stripped and knocked over, but no trace of whatever produced the explosion. It was, apparently, “the largest impact event in recorded history,” 1,000 times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, sending a shock wave that “knocked people off of their feet and broke windows hundreds of kilometers away,” and producing for days afterwards glowing night skies visible across Asia and Europe. Carl Sagan is live at the scene:

Cosmos. Love it.

So we had a title. And now we have a Tunguska. But another Tunguska? Thank goodness singer Joseph D’Agostino provides lyrics, line breaks or no:

I emerged as if through a narrowed eye into lashes of white sun from your apartment and pollen clouds held absent sound. In gutted buildings we pray. Bridges and causeways curl fast again like slap bracelets. And the skyline resets to a bare, hushed wilderness. I worship the day of the invisible wave: Then, a stream of revenants surged outward like prominences from the sun. 1927: an explosion, another Tunguska. And at once I was flat on my back. My skateboard rolled on down the hill. The congregating deer stood stock still in the corridor of manicured lawns. Remember you and I would get so high we’d pass out with our shoes on, first light through leaves? This was back when my smoke would juke and stutter in the highway crossbreeze.

Okay, so that’s all fabulous imagery. But at this point in our detective story, I’m confused: 1927 is not 1908. What happened in 1927? Well, the Equitable Gas explosion happened. As I understand from what I can find, on November 14, 1927 in Pittsburgh, workmen tried to repair a leak in the largest of three natural gas storage tanks belonging to the Equitable Gas company–and they tried to do it with acetylene torches (!!!). The five million cubic foot tank exploded, which in turn set off a four million cubic foot tank, which in turn set off a 500,000 cubic foot tank. One of these three, a twenty-story-tall tank, actually shot into the air, where it exploded above ground, spraying steel shrapnel across the city below. Yikes. Buildings in the 20 miles surrounding shook from the blast; those nearby were leveled. 26-28 people died.

And there we have our history lesson.

With regard to the rest of the lyrics, these references are intended to associate a powerful poetic moment of insight with the force of large-scale physical disasters. At the outset, just as light travels faster than sound, D’Agostino describes a moment of emergence in which he feels as if he’s walking into the world through an opening eye; the visible experience is followed by the kind of pregnant silence that precedes the shock waves of large explosions. I imagine scenes from blockbuster films in which everything slows and hushes as light fills the screen in the seconds before the THX sub-frequencies rumble in and Maxell you in your stadium seating. And in that surging anticipation, D’Agostino worships “the day of the invisible wave.”

When it hits, D’Agostino’s moment, and/or the memory of the moment, hits him with the force of the Tunguska event and the Equitable Gas explosion, and before he knows it, he’s been knocked off of his feet. In the aftermath, as if he doesn’t have a clue where he is or why he’s there, he looks to the natural world looking back at him, a feedback loop of confusion. The song winds down in a coda of associated memory, subtly pointing us back to the beginning lyric’s light and highways as the track disperses like the imagery of tobacco whisping off against the sky.

It’s a beautiful capsule of impressionistic story-telling. And that’s to say nothing of the appropriately sunny tune that guides it, pressing onwards and upwards with the narrative, breathing in flux to the interplay of outward observation with inward reflection, impeccably conjoined with every turn of the lyrics. It’s a marvelous composition that’s one of my favorite songs of last year. That it takes some unpacking to get the most out of it–all the better. Is insight a disaster? Kind of. But that’s a good thing. Thanks dudes.

Wolfing Out

If there’s one sure thing in the life of anyone in a band, it’s that you’ll eventually see all your friends’ bands break up.  It’s sort of the indie-rock equivalent to when other adult-aged people see their friends go through divorces and get promoted to management positions and other real-life things.

One of the stalwarts of what seemed like a steamrolling noise-rock scene in mid/late-2000s just packed it in recently.  You may have groaned at seeing their name in your local alt-weekly a few times – AIDS Wolf?  Chances are you never got past the name, and I probably can’t blame you.  But still, there they were – a pretty great band from Montreal that pursued an unabashedly Arab on Radar-inspired wall of dissonant guitar howls and epileptic screams.  My band played with them once or twice and they were super nice offstage (for real) and some awesome people to meet.

AIDS Wolf – Tied up in Paper

A little while ago, the band’s singer, Chloe Lum, posted some thoughts about it all in a thing titled “End of an Era.” It put forward a number of interesting thought-nuggets about creativity, integrity, artistic purpose, and how come it seems like things aren’t great anymore for anyone trying to pave their own weirdo way.  Keep in mind that they’re from Canada, so watching their artistic support network disappear must have been even tougher for them, given that they actually had one to begin with. The post has several passages worth nothing that go from informative to heartfelt to straight up whiny (not being critical – the thing is basically grappling with some emotions about quitting a band, so whining shouldn’t really be off-limits, right?).

Many of our peer bands had either disbanded , or stopped/seriously slowed down on touring. “I’m in debt and can’t afford the time off work anymore” they’d tell us, or “I want to start a family / go to grad school / get an adult job”. “I can’t face another empty room, it’s futile , pointless , ridiculous , demoralizing”. Same story everywhere and no surprise, we were getting older and so were our friends and what’s marginal at 20-something becomes much more so at 30-something or 40-something. But beyond many of our cohort moving on, there where significant changes in what was deemed “underground,” what could get booked where and under what circumstances. It seemed that as a bunch of 30 somethings in an extended van full of big amps and a loud as hell P.A. had become an anachronism.

True. Though, to be honest, this sort of thing seems like it may have been an anachronism from the very beginning. In economics-speak (which I know basically nothing about), it seems like the market has kind of been saturated ever since those of us who were in middle school when grunge blew up illogically convinced ourselves we had punk cred. We hit the road in tour vans because it seemed like we were born into it. But is it weird to feel surprised when the generation starts to grow up and feel like the thing is pointless when we realized there are thousands other bands trying to do the same thing?

Wait HOW MANY bands have already used this mic today?

On the other hand, lamenting the size of everything, while it might be accurate – 1,500 bands go to SXSW every year to prove it – is kind of unfair to a band like AIDS Wolf. It speaks to a lazy acceptance of some kind of nightmarish utopia where everyone’s suddenly on the same footing.  Socially, it’s cool that everyone gets along more now than ever, but I’d rather not pretend that your cousin’s laptop pop band or some tenth-generation alt-country group is somehow in the same boat with this kind of thing. I’m not saying that “difficult” music and confrontational/oddball stage presence automatically means a certain kind of music is to be taken  more seriously or affords it a little more consideration – definitely not – I’m just saying it’s weird that it’s assumed to have all the same kind of constraints (lost in the crowd) and opportunities (hey you should try licensing that song!) as everyone else. It’s nice that we all grab food from the same taco truck in the morning, but come on now.

AIDS Wolf – Spit Tastes Like Metal

One of my favorite memories from festival land is the night I crawled my way downtown to the old Knitting Factory in New York after a week of CMJ bands softly begging to be checked out, to be blogged about, to have their pictures taken, to get invited somewhere (anywhere!) with free drinks, and to see KRS-One. AIDS Wolf was playing on the big stage at the Knit as part of the Lovepump/Panache/Skin Graft showcase, and oh lord was it the greatest, nastiest, coarse-grain scrubbing ever. Other bands from that show: Ruins, Japanther, Apes, Made in Mexico, Old Time Relijun, Pre, HEALTH, Monotonix, Yip-Yip. In all their ugly glory, this collection of bands seemed like the total opposite from all the kindly music industry reverence that seemed to go down in every other spot in town that week, and it was glorious. Was it glorious in a calculated, this-is-our-role-here kind of way? Aw, don’t be so cynical.

So no, I wouldn’t blame the dwindling ability of bands like this to succeed on the fact that there are millions others like them. There really aren’t.

Moving on, there are some interesting logistics details that bring that vague suspicions that cross-border touring into real focus – Lum says that their US touring visas (I don’t even know what those are) doubled in price and came with new requirements like needing paperwork on shows six months before the show. Given that this band was still doing a fair amount of DIY shows, you can imagine the absurdity in that.

They did finally get their tour together, though. Here’s how it went:

Then the actual tour happened, where by the time we had played to less than 5 people several gigs in a row, being a scroungy jammer seemed less like a fun hobby / challenging art practice and more like an exercise in humiliation. At at least half the gigs, the opening bands would split right after playing, without even acknowledging our presence. In New Orleans, attempts to chat with one of the opening bands got us eye rolls.

Well that sounds like it sucked.  In the end, I’m wondering what else you can expect? I’m an American and raised under the ideals of capitalism and Puritanical “try try again” kind of ethics, so whenever I’d face shows with like five people at them, my instant reaction was always that it’s my fault.

Does the world of underground rock owe AIDS Wolf their continued support? Maybe we’re sick of it and don’t want to hear it anymore. Maybe we just forgot about them while trying to track millions blog posts about other album releases, st(r)eaming tracks, video teasers, and Twitter feeds, and our own “vibrant local scenes.” But at the same time, anybody ought to be sympathetic to a crew that had a dream, saw it build momentum to a pretty thrilling peak, and then just saw things inexplicably evaporate.

As it stands, we’re in the middle of billion bands not making money and still not going away, for better or worse. Maybe it means that we all assume they’re all interchangeable – why invite AIDS Wolf to your town to play when you can just have the local garage rock band play? That’s sad.

Maybe the whole thing of hoping to sustainably run amuck playing music all over the continent was a ridiculous one to begin with, fueled by insane accounting by record companies (and bands as well, who all maintain their own definitions of “breaking even” as long as they can) and the artists that they propped up with flimsy but convincing careers. Maybe all us creative types are just kidding ourselves when we think we deserve a little something for ever having going down this avenue in the first place, especially the ones knowingly making music seemingly designed to as a caustic attack on anything people might accidentally like.  What  services are we really providing society?!! Toward the end, AIDS Wolf recently switched course into something maybe even less popular appeal – playing around with modern classical approaches and techniques. I’m not gonna lie – I didn’t get a copy of their new album, Ma vie banale avant garde (and worse, totally missed the last show on their tour in Boston). But it seems like either an admirably desolate path to go down (wait a minute, aren’t all self-respecting indie rockers turning to classical music now?) or a calculated career suicide. Either way, it seems like the kind of thing that’s harder and harder to justify outrage about not making a living off of. Is that wrong? Maybe this poor kid’s mom has a point:

What Music Worth, According to My Mom

In the end, hopefully there are still a few people who make a real racket and are industrious enough for a little while to take it out to people in far-flung locales.  Even if they have to get a real job later on. You can tell they’re psyched.

Strange Mercy

Will someone please remove this baby from my face?

Annie Clark has built a career exploring the darker side of things conventional or sweet. She’s a slight, attractive, well-groomed and well-dressed artist with a penchant for taking awkward glamour shots, making job applicants cry, and filming housewife hostage videos. She accompanies her careful voice with space-funk synths, blown-out drums, face-scorching fuzz, and Wagnerian progressions that never resolve. Last year’s well-received third full-length album as St. Vincent, Strange Mercy, was no different. Several months later, I still can’t get over the title track.

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

The song begins with Dilla-esque drums that lurch along, conjuring images of slo-mo poppers on downers. The instrumentation is restrained and sparse for all the atmosphere. Only a guitar, the drum loop, and a modest helping of synths support Clark’s vocals. The narrative here is quite moving, though it’s tricky to pin down the details. At first it seems like something along the lines of Taken by Trees’ “Too Young” (whose Tough Alliance remix is one of my favorite reinterpretations of the last few years)–-a song I always interpreted as a lullaby sung at a distance to a child given up for adoption, a blessing for a life the singer is not supposed to meddle with but for which she cannot help being concerned. Clark’s lyrics here seem to describe perhaps a sister who isn’t able to take care of her young sibling. The second verse paints a beautiful, dense portrait: “Oh little one, your Hemingway jawline looks just like his, our father in exile for God only knows how many years. So when you see him, wave through double-pane.” The father appears to be in prison, only reachable through thick glass and short telephone wire.

The chorus is a concise promise: “I’ll be with you, lost boys, sneaking out where the shivers won’t find you.” But whatever “I’ll be with you in spirit” message is sent seems like a half-hearted gesture. The progress the song has made dissolves into the instrumental bridge’s mysterious and detached synth theme.

When the rhythm cuts out for a brief interlude, Clark takes the attentive occasion to define the song title: “Oh little one, I’ll tell you good news that I don’t believe if it would help you sleep. Strange mercy…” A live drum roll punctuates the emptiness. A synth rises in anticipation. Before we know it, Clark has raised the stakes for this second verse.

When the beat drops, her clean guitar has become a barking lawnmower spewing diesel across the summer-hot sidewalk. The bass synth oscillator has gone low and wonky like wind struggling through a car with just one window open. The sinister pace of the song grinds the sudden momentum through the weighted down gravity of the arrangement. In a brilliant double turn, Clark belts an open-ended vendetta: “If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up…” And just as soon as she’s snarled that desperate threat, she caves in on the follow-through, admitting, dreadfully, “Oh, I don’t know what.” When the chorus returns, it feels like a spasm of resignation, a hopeless farewell breaking down beat by beat. She has invoked a judgment and, knowing she’s powerless to enforce it, she flees.

The return of the bridge and its gloomy melody leaves us in some sort of queasy status quo that’s all the more so with that second synth running the line hard right with its taunting, teasing tone. The strangeness of “strange mercy” seems to suggest that we often find ourselves led to the path of kindness not because we’re agents of altruism, but because we lack a capacity for the action we should or would prefer to take. We excuse the brutality of an abusive police officer not because we forgive the transgressions, but because we’re powerless to retaliate against police force (not to mention that we are highly unlikely to summon the will to vigilante justice). We keep our children from the shock of the adult world, not solely because we want to protect and nurture them, but because we’re unable, when confronted with their innocent minds and faces, to admit to them the fear we’re held hostage by on a daily basis. And, perhaps, when we find ourselves unable to be the people we think our family deserve, we leave them so others might do a better job, not entirely because we believe our siblings or heirs are more fortunate with what others might pass down, but because we are unable to confront sufficiently whatever keeps us from responsible, caring attachments. And this isn’t necessarily a judgment of cowardice. It’s that we’re bold and weak, graceful and clumsy. It’s that we have complicated stories. St. Vincent latches onto that here and explores it a remarkably moving way.

Blame the Soundguy: Why Do Bands Sound So Awful on TV?

Proof that there are sound checks on TV.

It’s basically been the worst year ever for live bands on TV, right? It seems like some poor band sees their career blow up in their face every week on some soundstage or another. I mean mostly the one at SNL, but the opportunity is there everywhere you look.

The issue could be any of a few things. Fledgling bands with no actual talent wilting under the pressure of national TV (the grumpy old man argument)? Bad vibes from trying to act like a live band in a TV studio? House band heckling you? Or maybe the sound mix just realllllllly sucks.

I can maybe buy the first thing about new musicians (talent-ed or -less) getting all nervy and weird knowing that you’re going to be zapped into the homes of millions of people who don’t care about you that night. Or even that you’re performing while standing a few feet from seasoned pros who are 100 times better at music than you, like the guy who replaced Kevin Eubanks. But the bigger problem might be the sound. To my very modestly trained ear, it seems the sound is . . . not great?

Check out this recent performance by Sleigh Bells on SNL, which can kind of be summed up by: “barf.”

Here’s the recorded version of the song:

Sleigh Bells – End of the Line

I know, it’s a rough band to start on. Now as far as Sleigh Bells go, few bands are as dependent on really specific recording conditions (ie. blown-out tracks across the board) for their sound as they are, and so you can imagine how they might fall on their face when those conditions are taken away. Instead of everything in the red, we have a couple of digitally fuzzed-out guitars panned hard and sounding tiny and a wimpy drum beat that might as well be coming from an old Casio sitting beside the cameraman. Then there’s Alexis Krauss’s falsetto, which makes so much sense when it’s smashed and amped up on record, here just huffing and puffing all over top of the mix.

But it’s not just Sleigh Bells. A lot of the major shows have been having these issues for years now, and while it’s the hyped artists like Lana del Ray and Kanye West that get slammed the hardest for it, probably because their appearances mark the first chance lots of disconnected people have to judge them, regular old rockers and dinosaurs don’t go unscathed. Sir Paul McCartney endured/survived/forced upon us an epic stinker of a night on SNL back in 2010 (whatever, it was still kind of fun), and I even found myself feeling sorry for Chickenfoot during a particularly flat, slappy, wonky, poopy-sounding performance on The Tonight Show.

So what’s the deal? We can safely presume that people are getting paid to make it not sound like this right?

It seems like the short answer is that a lot of these stages and recording systems have just been victims of cut corners. SNL, Leno, and Conan’s brief run on The Tonight Show in particular seem to have some major issues with reflective surfaces, high ceilings, poorly thought-out studio construction. Conan’s new TBS show seems to have figured things out – maybe it’s the padded cell walls they hung on the bandstand?

TMBG on Conan, January 2012

I talked to guitarist Drew O’Doherty (from all kinds of bands, though his latest album is here) about the time he was on Conan playing with Ted Leo back in the day (nine years ago, actually), and he had nothing but great things to say about the experience:

Soundcheck was pretty laborious at the old Conan show in NYC. We loaded in real early in the morning and must’ve run through “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?” a dozen times. Between soundcheck and the taping, we were invited in to hear the mix and give our input. When we met the engineer, she was A/B’ing her live mix with the Hearts Of Oak CD. She did a great job, using the album version as a reference for mixing. I was pretty impressed with her attention to detail.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a higher quality version of that performance available online. It may be hard to tell, but the audio mix itself was pretty spot-on. At the time, I heard from all kinds of folks how impressed they were with our mix on that show, since live rock bands so frequently sound like crap on TV. Maybe we just won the lottery with that particular engineer. I wish I knew her name so I could give her credit!

Of course, I’ve also seen/heard countless bands sound terribly mixed on various late night shows. I was at the JAWBOX one-off taping two years ago and was shocked to hear how unrepresentative the broadcast mix was. Sounded massive in the room. Not so much over the airwaves.

That feeling is echoed throughout the internet in small nooks and crannies where people really care about this stuff. O’Brien’s Late Night crew is consistently praised. But there always seems to be that feeling of, “Why doesn’t it sound as good as it did in the room?”

Here’s where the post breaks down a bit and becomes a total “This Would Make a Great Story with More Research” kind of a thing (note to prospective editors!), but still – what I’m here to report is that there are some interesting discussions going on online about this stuff. The most common complaint is that bands sounded great live and then sounded terrible on the broadcast. Some of it might be untrustworthy, but you can run into all sorts of people who it turns out work on the shows or, for example, helped build the studios. Regarding the ill-fated Conan Tonight Show, this guy “Lovekrafty” says:

I built out all of the audio rooms for the new Conan Show and built out the stage audio, ( Equipment and wiring ). I agree the sound is’nt the greatest. I think there are a few reasons — first off it’s a big room, originally designed for film production (it’s actually the Jack Benny shows old stage ).

They didn’t do too much in the way of treating the room. Including the rafters the stage is 40 ft high lot’s of bouncing around going on (in fact they stripped a lot of the original treatment off the walls, i.e. 50 year old fiberglass covered in burlap). The floor is covered is black shiny acrylic tiling which certainly doesn’t help.

On the production side, it’s a whole new crew , with new equipment and to be honest the production room design wasn’t that good. After all it’s only broadcast right?

Meanwhile, “Plexisys” chimes in like this, noting what might be the most important problem as far as I can tell: the ENTIRE MEDIUM OF BROADCAST TELEVISION!

Having mixed live sound for TV going back to the Midnight Special in the 70s up to today I can assure you it’s just not fun working with the broadcast side of things.

Most of the time the monitors you mix on have no relationsship to the sound that will be coming out of TV speakers. In most cases the broadcasters have the compressor/limiters set so tight there is little or no possibility of dynamics.

Some of the studios will not let the bands engineer mix the live parts but require the house “union” guy to mix the show. All you are to them is the PITA band of the week.

As an engineer/mixer, I’d rather mix monitors for a deaf band than mix for live broadcast.

All of this is over at Gearslutz, basically, which you might as well go read on your own, since there are some cool pics of the actual building of a talk show stage there. Basically, you start to get the picture that very few people in the business knows what they’re doing and you might as well be watching Flipper on some cable access show (oh look, that exists and it unsurprisingly sounds a-okay).

The best part of all is that no-budget blogs and zines are already figuring out ways to do all this in better, more creative ways. In general, video/performance series like Black Cab Sessions and They Shoot Music Don’t They. No sound guys or any of that kind of crap as far as I can tell.

In the meantime, some talk shows still knock it out of the park: Letterman and especially Jimmy Fallon are incredible. Fallon especially has already launched a few careers off of his stage (be honest – how many of you had ever, EVER heard of Odd Future before they jumped up and down a bunch on Late Nightlast year?) and made for some insane link bait with people we forgot we cared about, like this bonkers performance of “Bring tha Noize” with Public Enemy backed by the Roots and the Antibalas horns:

In fact, it’s not really ever the sound quality that we came to these programs for in the first place, but the occasion. It’s the chance to feel validated for the band you love on the same network that’s broadcasting presidential debates, and to see them thrillingly hung out to dry when the sound goes crazy. It’s the chance to see bands thrust into foreign situations alongside Dave and Conan and Charles Barkley…

…and suddenly have the cameras turned on and people like your parents are watching.

What’s gonna happen?

Bon Iver Acceptance Speech Do-Over

Bon Iver sez: “Sweet hook-up.”

A quick summary, even if you’re not still wondering “Who is Bon Iver?”

This November, the Recording Academy nominated the very deserving Bon Iver for an astounding four Grammys: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Alternative Music Album, and Best New Artist. In December, Vernon said some tough things in a New York Times interview about his reaction to being nominated:

I would get up there and be like, “This is for my parents, because they supported me,” because I know they would think it would be stupid of me not to go up there. But I kinda felt like going up there and being like: “Everyone should go home, this is ridiculous. You should not be doing this. We should not be gathering in a big room and looking at each other and pretending that this is important.”

The Grammys made him into a poster and dropped his nominated song into a commercial, to which he responded:

There’s a big misunderstanding–I don’t want to sell music. But if people are going to be selling music, and they want to sell our music without disturbing the medium of what it actually is, we want to fucking do that. I want people to hear the music that we make. I don’t want to do it in any shitty way.

He was asked to perform on the Grammys with some of his *ahem* peers and not-so-respectfully declined, according to an interview with Billboard:

We wanted to play our music, but we were told that we couldn’t play. We had to do a collaboration with someone else. And we just felt like it was such a large stage. We’re getting nominated for this record that we made, me and Brian [Joseph] and a bunch of our fucking friends, and we were given accolades for it. And all of a sudden we were being asked to play music that had nothing to do with that. We kind of said ‘fuck you’ a little bit and they sort of acted like they wanted us to play, but I don’t think they wanted us to play… Fuckin’ rock n’ roll should not be decided by people that have that job. Rock n’ roll should be the fucking people with guitars around their backs. And their friends. And their managers.

Then he actually won two Grammys, threw up his hands, kissed his mother, and had this to say.

It’s really hard to accept this acceptance speech. Justin Vernon definitely wants to sell music. He makes a living off of his music. He just started his own record label (Jagjaguwar imprint Chigliak), which is, as I understand it, a type of business that sells (or at least tries to sell) music. Artists need money to pay the bills they incur while making their art. That’s why they sell music for Miller Genuine Draft commercials and pose for Bushmills ad campaigns. No earnest artist wants to prostitute one’s work; there’s also nothing wrong with being rewarded for art that moves people. That’s the goal. Repeat the mantra: started out hustlin’, ended up ballin’.

I understand Vernon’s reservations about the work and intention of the Recording Academy. At worst, the awards and festivities feel like a circle jerk (how masturbatory was the final performance with Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, et al trading licks over the end of “The End”?). At best, the honorary nods turn due congratulations into ham-fisted production cheese (like the Beach Boys tribute) and the underdog award recipients feel like vessels for the Recording Academy to penetrate into the hearts and minds of a younger, hipper audience (think Radiohead’s OK Computer or Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs). The very idea of “bestness” in music is pretty bizarre. But why do the Grammys catch all the flack while certain notable Top 50 lists also giving Bon Iver top honors escape unscathed.

Who said you have to be trying to win an award when you make music that’s nominated for a Grammy? It’s an important moment when someone is rewarded for making music that somehow manages to catch enough peoples’ attention that the Recording Academy–whose voters have momentarily escaped being steamrolled by the music industry machine into thinking the amount of money people put into making and selling a record can be a standard by which they evaluate quality–choose to celebrate something that’s surprised and moved them. There’s no shame in being grateful for and gracious with the honor–it is an honor. That there are a ton of excellent musicians that don’t get the respect they deserve goes without saying. So I kind of feel like Vernon pissed on his own moment (because he should be excited about winning that award, for goodness’ sake!) and on a tremendously unique opportunity (because he didn’t articulate his complaints).

If you’re offered the chance to have thirty seconds where the industry you critique must listen to what you have to say, if you’re still given the podium after you’ve shit on them in the press over the months leading up to the event, I feel like you should be better prepared to deliver a clear message. I see that notecard in his hand. He clearly feels like he could not freestyle a thoughtful acceptance speech on stage in front of “a lot of talent in this room” he’d badmouthed. But there’s something missing, given all those quotes. On that stage, at that moment, Vernon could have articulated a position instead of merely suggesting something to an audience of insiders who are so inside they’re outside of the rest of the music world. He owes it to independent music, sure. But he also kind of owes it to the Recording Academy, whose membership nominated and voted for him, who clearly are not entirely seduced by the glitz and flash on the red carpet, who appear to have some level of interest in being more progressive about what they award and why, who may just be hoping–after he spilled the beans to such widely circulated media outlets as the New York Times and Billboard–Vernon ponies up and says what’s on their mind, something like:

This is an incredibly unexpected honor. But as flattered as I am, to be perfectly honest, I feel kind of uncomfortable accepting it. A Grammy has never seemed like a very definitive or even educated judgment about quality music. Especially in my case. Because I would have made this album even if I hadn’t collaborated with Kanye West. But I seriously doubt I’d be accepting this award right now if I hadn’t. So this is kind of an accidental coup, because I’m basically an interloper on an independent label crashing an event designed to promote major label music. And while I’m tremendously moved that my music has reached such a large audience that I could be considered for this award, what I really want to do is dedicate it to a very large population of incredibly talented people making important, beautiful music at this moment who are not ever going to be represented in this forum because people in suits and offices don’t think they can make millions of dollars off of them.

Or something like that. So, yeah, I’d like to see a do-over. But it’s a little late now: Bon Iver went home with two Grammys Sunday night. And I’m thankful for that, even if he’s not.

Great Bedroom Recordings

“I like to believe I do art because I have to do it—it’s like vomit.”
Willis Earl Beal, Credit: Michael Boyd / Chicago Reader

That’s Willis Earl Beal, this guy in Chicago who’s about to release his first album on XL Imprint Hot Charity in April.  He has an intense outsider sort of backstory (you know you’ve hit the obscurity jackpot when your first big exposure comes in Found magazine). He doesn’t even  have a Bandcamp or Soundcloud (!), and what has surfaced of his recordings sounds sounds like long-lost practice tapes with clanky percussion and waterlogged guitars.  It’s awesome, and for anyone who’s spent hours huddled around tape recorders or laptop mics  just happy to get stuff down on tape before it vanishes into thin air, it’s like a siren call from the past — when expectations were low, magic happened in real time instead of being wrestled from DAW editing tools, and things were real.  

It brings up a long obsession for lots of us with busted up recordings so gnarly they seem like they can’t be lying.

There’s a certain moment in life when a listener is suddenly fine with hearing shitty audio quality.  For most of our formative years, we spend the days listening to what’s on the radio, at the club, drifting through TV shows, blasting durin movies, whatever. We get used to the idea that the results of super expensive methods of recording are the standard for how to hear things.

Eventually, you get to hear something some talentless soul recorded on his or her own.  This is easy now that anyone can put up any recording they feel like all over the internet but, even in the prehistoric days, we all had tape recorders growing up and our parents had big reel-to-reel doo-dads before that.  Eventually you were exposed to it, and the first time you heard it I think we can agree that you probably hated it.

It sounds really bad.  It gets all fuzzy on the loud parts and blows out the speaker and these unexplained ghost waves of dissonance trail the held out notes.  Bands are even worse, usually coming across as a racket so smeared and useless that no right-minded person would sit through more than 30 seconds of it.

But step onto the other side of this equation and it’s like putting on Roddy Piper’s magic Ray-Bans. Once you’ve recorded yourself in the garage – once you’ve been behind the scenes – you know that terrible washing sound is the cymbals.  The warbled moan is the artifact of what seemed like a captivating singer at the time.  It all makes sense. You listen to it over and over.  It’s one of the most exciting things ever.   You put it on your shelf next to a dubbed Guns’n’Roses tape and don’t even bat an eye.

I was in a band that did this, of course.  We recorded onto an old cassette deck. For vocals, we figured out that we could plug an old pair of ‘70s headphones into a keyboard amp and yell into them.  We recorded ten songs. We brought them to a friend who was a drummer and played the tape for him and he looked at us in horror.  “I don’t even know where the drum beat is in this,” he said.  I was baffled.

In any case, it’s an acquired taste, but it doesn’t go away. It’s like learning how to ride a bike, with broken brake cables.  And so you move on bravely equipped to pick up people’s bad demos, practice recordings, and bootleg live tapes and parse them for treasures the way mycologists dig around in dank woods teeming with rabid grizzly bears for choice mushrooms while the rest of us are fine with the dealies in the Styrofoam trays.

This was just news on CNN:  scientists cleaned up what is possibly the oldest audio recording ever, made in 1878 by a French scientist named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on a thing called “the phonautogram.”   On it, he’s singing “Clair de lune” in what sounds like an extremely depressed stupor, but who knows.  The recording is muddy and scratchy and barely decipherable and amazing.  In all of his research and fundraising and engineering while believing he was doing one of the most high-tech things ever, Scott de Martinville basically made the world’s first lo-fi single.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville – Claire de Lune

There’s been a lot written about “lo-fi” as a genre, mostly since Lou Barlow started kicking it (about 115 years later) with a four-track in some Northampton apartment and Robert Pollard stumbled toward a boozy record button in Dayton.  But in its essence, talking about this method (or lack of method) in the greater context of stuff flying around the internet can drain what’s cool from it.  And that is: shitty recordings serve a great, unfathomable, and maybe even holy purpose that (hopefully now) goes beyond getting stuff up on a Tumblr as fast as possible.

In charting the waters of great, poorly recorded music, you’d have to make two categories — those that make straight ahead attempts to record a single, honest performance (think the lifelong catalog of Jandek or maybe a weird uncle of yours), and those that flail about with tape-cutting and handfisted multi-tracking like a punk making flyers out of safety scissors and Scotch tape. Both can rule, both can sound hamfisted and corny. The first category probably yields the most nostalgic examples.

Daniel Johnston – Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances

Daniel Johnston is the classic example and still maybe the best.  Hopefully you’ve seen the Devil and Daniel Johnston documentary, which is my favorite music film ever. Johnston made tapes one at a time on a pump organ (later guitar) in his house in Austin.  The tape recorder would sit on the top of the organ and Johnston would sing and play right into it.  On the recording, pretty much the loudest thing was the actual percussive sound of the keys getting punched over and over.  I mean it doesn’t sound very good and good luck listening to this in a car, but Johnston is too charming to not love it. His weird version of mental unbalance and honest, earnest songwriting make this stuff essential. The feeling is that he made the tape just for you (in some cases he did – stories go that he’d sometimes run out of copies to dub and would just record the whole thing again in the earliest days).

The Mountain Goats – Maize Stalk Drinking Blood

John Darnielle followed in those footsteps in the first long phase of the Mountain Goats, churning out piles of boombox dispatches from bedrooms in the late ‘90s.  Darnielle was no Daniel Johnston – he writes tense, skittish songs packed with dense, self-aware lyrics with literary allusions and obscure proper nouns. He doesn’t have quite as much of that mad genius thing going that lends itself so much to this kind of . . . format.  Still, the overall tinny blastedness of hearing Darnielle blaze through emotional manifestos over a beat-up acoustic guitar there in cassette tape oblivion is pretty a righteous experience.  He eventually developed a career out of it and started making decent-sounding recordings that weren’t as memorable, but not really any worse.  He could afford it, they sounded fine, why not?

Frank Black is a guy who’s not really ever championed lo-fi approaches to things – just check the admittedly lame-sounding gated drums on most of the Pixies albums, ouch – but he has had a pretty can-do attitude about covering everything in a song by himself.  My first live-streaming video experience is watching Frank do a low-rent web interview through AOL where he broke a string and looked into the camera and remarked, “Can you imagine a parent walking in  their kid staring at this right now?  Some guy in bad lighting fixing his guitar string?  They’re probably horrified.” Check this very old TV interview where he shows off his contentedness to just hum the lead guitar parts while Joey Santiago is off doing who knows what. Probably wasn’t even told about the interview.

When the Pixies reformed early on last decade,  someone at SpinArt (or Frank himself) had the sweet idea of releasing all the solo acoustic drafts of what would become the first three Pixies album that Frank recorded in 1986. He did it like that video — all alone in a room (right in my old neighborhood of Allston!) with a guitar and himself howling guitar parts and bass parts, sometimes giving little asides.  It’s kind of thrilling to hear, only the mastering dude put some quite cheesy reverb on the whole for I don’t know what purpose. Are we fooled into thinking a recording is more polished if it sounds as if it were dropped into a fake cave?  It would have been pretty magical, documentary-style finding is kind of turned into one of those blurry-vision dramatization segments out of Unsolved Mysteries.  Frank probably wouldn’t mind that comparison, actually. (This isn’t up on the internet for whatever reason)

On the other side lies knob-twiddling, button-mashing, sputtering-mic cable type of records typified by Sebadoh. Sebadoh III is kind of the classic, but my own personal benchmark for this approach, I guess, is that opium warped mess of John Frusciante’s Niandra Ladies and Usually Just a T-Shirt.

The idea with this record (and which might be more romanticized than the real thing) is that it’s a bunch of garbled four-track recordings he released after leaving the Chili Peppers and getting strung out on heroin.  That’s the story that usually gets handed along to you if you have a friend force this one on you, like I did, and when you listen to the thing, it’s hard not to believe it:

John Frusciante – Head (Beach Arab)

This record slays, although its insanity is probably due a bit more to Frusciante’s conscious decisions about recording — guitars probably straight in, no effects other than that delay pedal and maybe some toying with the Tape Speed controls (though who am I to say?) — and he’s gone on record as saying most of this stuff was recorded before he even left the band.  Right after Blood Sugar Sex Magik was recorded, actually.  So maybe the connection to any drug-fueled turmoil isn’t even that authentic, which is kind of a let-down (but also kind of a win for artistic expression, right)? In the end, the record channels some gut level stuff anyway.

Then there’s kind of the best stuff — unearthed working demos. This is stuff that people were never meant to hear anyway, and it seems like there are often all kinds of weird glimpses into creative process and emotions that went into the creation through these.  The Beatles obviously sold boatloads of this kind of thing when they put out those Anthologies in the ’90s, despite the fact that it’s hard to imagine most people sitting around jamming to three unfinished takes in a row of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

PJ Harvey released her 4-Track Demos as the clamor over Rid of Me was dying down and her band had broken up. It was pretty rad — self-recorded versions of the same stuff from Rid of Me with a few bonuses – and some critics were even into it more than the real deal. Or maybe this was the real deal. I don’t know.  It’s possibly the only time Steve Albini, who recorded the studio version, has ever been accused of overproducing anything.

PJ Harvey – Reeling (4-Track Demos)

Another good example is the nasty-sound collection of demos that surfaced in the early ’90s for Tom Waits’s Alice project, which at that point was only known as a musical going down in German which no one in America would ever see.  Who knows what kind of backstabbing ninja studio work went into sneaking this out the bootleggers of the time, but here it is.  In this particularly rough one, it basically sounds like some rough instrumental rhythm work was laid down and then Tom took a tape recorder along in his car while he made up words on the spot.

Tom Waits – What Became Of Old Father Craft

Basically, it’s great.

A question for now is: where are our true lo-fi, diamond in the rough recordings?  There are tons of badly produced homespun stuff out there now, graduating from MySpace pages to SoundClouds and Bandcamps everywhere and burstin from the remains of the Altered Zones blog like pesky allergens. WAVVES nailed the fried 4-track sound right out of the gates, but even then it sort of sounds affected (not exactly in a bad way, but not in a “Gee, this was made just for me” way, either). Ditto like everything else (first Grizzly Bear record, early Ariel Pink, Times New Viking, Kurt Vile records). Suggestions here are super welcome, by the way.

But then there’s Willis Earl Beal:

Willis Earl Beal – Take Me Away

And you realize that things are still awesome.

But if you need to have some guy come along on a blog and tell you where to find the hot real “authentic” lo-fi stuff, you’re probably not looking very hard.  Convince your friends to record themselves making stuff up.  There’s a good chance they don’t know what they’re doing and the whole thing will come off totally honest.  In the end, the entire authenticity of the shitty recording might just have to do with an underdog, ground level feeling similar to when you see a band onstage at a tiny rock club with no soundguy and blown speakers.  Maybe that’s just the fable we like to tell ourselves, but it hits home, right?  There’s a quote attributed to Kim Gordon, who’s seen a few lifetimes’ worth of dumpy shows, that goes something like , “When we go to rock concerts, we pay to see people believing in themselves.”  We want to believe the people making records like this — like Johnston, like Willis, like Jandek — are doing it because they have no other choice. What we’re buying into is a good old sense of duty, maybe some desperation, and maybe a just little faith in themselves.

(Note to self and exhausted readers wondering what was the point — these posts should not be this long in the future).

Dueling Basses

We’re pretty well acquainted with how bands make the most of two guitar lineups: rhythm supporting lead, riffs working against atmosphere, outright doubling, etc. In the last couple of years, a number of tracks have caught my ear that have me hoping we’re seeing a less familiar guitar trend catch on: dueling basses.

Of Montreal uses two basses regularly enough to tour with two bass players–it’s not just a recording trick. Sometimes one deep bass carries a more traditional line while another trebly bass adds a percussive motion to the arrangement. Hard evidence is the best: Around the 1:00 mark of this appearance on Letterman, we see one playing a bouncy melody high on the neck while the other rides a steadier rhythm in a lower register.

Elsewhere in that song, they remain in the same range, playing counterpoint lines. Here’s a clearer recording of the approach from one of my favorite Of Montreal songs, “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider.”

Of Montreal – Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider

In the intro, the basses play little harmony licks to set the pace. During the verses, one bass leads the way panned center. But when the chorus breakdown arrives, two basses are now panned opposite each other, their harmony carrying the progression until the full arrangement returns. It’s a fun character that might be accomplished more often with keyboards than basses. But why put those Rickenbackers to waste? Of Montreal mastermind Kevin Barnes is such a diabolical composer, it’s no wonder he’s leading the charge with this technique–it’s yet another way to further conjure his music’s fractured psyche.

Shall we talk about panning some more? It’s common practice on recordings to use two takes of the same guitar part simultaneously, panning one to the right and one to the left. It fills out the sound and helps define the stereo field. On the other hand, because low frequencies need more energy to be propagated, recording engineers typically pan basses and kick drums dead center, so that the work is split between two speakers. All over Spoon‘s most recent album, Transference, the wily recordists in the band subvert that wisdom, doubling bass parts and panning each far opposite the other.

Spoon – Nobody Gets Me But You

Hard evidence is only the best when it’s still available–apparently the great performance of this song on Jimmy Fallon with The Roots‘s rhythm section playing along has been eradicated from the internet. But you get the gist. It’s crystal clear through headphones. We have two unique performances of the same part in the same song with the same instrument, which isn’t that unusual…except when it’s the bass guitar. It’s particularly ear-catching for long-time Spoon fans because it inverts the formula they began with: Britt Daniel’s guitar and Jim Eno’s drums. Instead, a distant, thin guitar deep in our left ear jangles away as if it’s just playing along with someone else’s recording, and a drum machine leads the way while overdubbed live drum patterns appear mostly just to ratchet up the energy here and there. All the while the parallel bass sandwiches the track along. Over the years, Spoon have gone from giving the bass a very small role to making it the key element in their ever-sparser arrangements. As a melodic rhythm instrument, it frees the guitar and drums to interpret more. “Nobody Gets Me But You” takes the shift to a new extreme, magnifying what they highlighted in Gimme Fiction‘s “I Turn My Camera On” with a sly wink from Daniel’s lyrics: “Do you get me?”

Deserved Grammy nominee Bon Iver is far more known for folkloric acoustic guitars and indie autotune than for his work in the rhythm section. On his lo-fi contribution to the two-disc compilation, Dark Was the Night, Justin Vernon serves up a track composed nearly entirely on the bass guitar.

Bon Iver – Brackett, WI

The bass arrangement on this gorgeous and obtusely timed song hybridizes the two approaches above. The basses, in a higher register, panned far opposite each other, define the progression with their harmonies. And while Justin Vernon works his sublime lyrics with that choirized falsetto, he points to his centerpiece instruments with the chorus’ clearest words. Digging low along the edges of the sound, tapping along the mathematical pattern under passing scenes and somber memories, the pair of basses are suddenly sucked out and replaced by tense acoustic guitars for the confessional reveal: “So I’m counting on your fingers ’cause you’ve reattached the twitch. And if you want opinion, I will die along the ditches.” Que suave.

Welcome to the New Diamond Igloo

Lil’ Wayne – La La (featuring Brisco and Busta Rhymes)

That’s the dream, right? To build something from nothing? To grind your fingers to the bone and find them on the flesh of something pulsing?

Among the industries that have thrived in the internet boom, music blogs and ambitious musicians have invested boatloads of energy and expense looking to hit the buzz jackpot. And while there are plenty of opportunities to do so in the lightspeed-paced web-news cycle, we often forget just how much hard work and luck go into lasting success. While everyone’s out looking for the right recipe, inquiring minds want to know: Who in the hell is feeding you or paying for that data plan you’re log-jamming all day long? The internet is a lottery full of gamblers looking to cop a Keno-sized bandwidth bonanza. At the end of the day, satisfaction is about doing what you love however you can manage.

Diamond Igloo is, for the most part, a group of musicians who have given it their best shot and are satisfied giving it good shots these days. We’ve been there (mostly) and done that (kind of) and we definitely do not have a closet of gold bullion and platinum frisbees to show for it. We make music and we love music nevertheless. So we’re offering just that.

In our archives, you’ll encounter pieces we’ve written that have floated around the internets and have found their home here, a number of which are inherited from the retiree blog The Cadillac of Winter. The original Diamond Igloo was also a recording clearinghouse of sorts, so you’ll see a number of listings for past releases. We’ll probably continue to release music because that’s a forum we would like to be. But for the most part, we’ll be talking about other people’s music.

We won’t be thoroughly compiling the hits of the day up to the minute. We’ll be writing pieces about things that move us or upset us or demand some kind of consideration beyond file-sharing and juke-tubing. We may have a mild Boston music scene bias because that’s where we live and it’s filled with the people we know, people making good music, music we’ll be proselytizing when inspired. We hope you like what we have to say. If you don’t, I’m sure we’ll hear about it. The internet is everywhere.

We started off hustling. We ended up blogging. Welcome to Diamond Igloo.

Initials B.R. – Initials B.R. Single Edits

Initials B.R. - Initials B.R. Single Edits

Fighting Words for OFWGKTA et al

This is how OFWGKTA feels right now…

The longer we slow to look at the flashing red and blue lights, to inspect the mangled chassis, to peek into the rear of the ambulance–the longer I dwell on all of the unsettling and disturbing and captivating issues–the more I want to take up the cause of the policeman waving cars on their merry way:

“There’s nothing to see here people. Move along.”

It’s not that easy, is it? Forgive me while I synthesize…

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NOVELTY ACT

Sure, their appearance on Jimmy Fallon is up there in the category of “Best Things to Happen on Television Since the Kanye Rant after Katrina.” Clearly, this moment and these firebrands caught everyone off-guard. But tell me you haven’t seen bands that wouldn’t have wilded out like that if given the opportunity to perform on late night television. Tell me you’re not a little ashamed of being sucked into the novelty: “Surprise America! Rappers aren’t always wooden thugs! Sometimes they’re crazed youth with tube socks!”

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LETTER TO THE EDITOR

Now, NPR is on their jock acting like naive parents who think they can convince their kids they’re cool by turning their friends onto their kids’ music:

“You know what else? They’re really good. Especially their ringleader, called Tyler The Creator. And another thing? It’s awesome to see them play live.”

Are you fucking kidding me? You couldn’t invent a better parody of NPR’s tagalong music staff. The New York Times does a little better, but they celebrate the music and describe the disturbing content while essentially giving Tyler, the Creator a pass because of hard times. Word to hard times. But hard times don’t get a pass. They get a moment, some space, a solemn acknowledgement. We do not give hard times license and we do not get to wash our hands when others fall on them.

As for Pitchfork, they’ve got me on some “Fear of an Eight Point Oh” maths: a 20-minute edit DNE a 2.0 deduction when the bulk of said edit is wretched music.
As I began working on this post last Monday, Pitchfork, reporting statements by Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara challenging the press and fans to take a stand on OFWGKTA, went all “Just the facts, Ma’am” and dropped an old Tegan and Sara video. Come on, dudes! Grow a pair! Tyler, the Creator’s “If Tegan And Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!” response deserves more than your “predictably fucked up” shoulder shrug!

Everyone is writing about it because it’s a spectacle, because there’s some new outlandish addition to the news cycle every time they pop up on the internet or break something on stage or bleed some member of the audience. The music media is feeding off of their network for web traffic. #OFWGKTA is great advertising.

Meanwhile, OFWGKTA are telling us we don’t get it. And they’re right. We don’t get it. We shouldn’t get it. We’re entertaining it because we want to be hip to the zeitgeist. We’ve been seduced by energy. And we’re accountable.

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TYLER

At present, this movement is all about Tyler, the Creator. And, sadly, what was disarmingly charming about him in that first network television takeover is exactly what’s missing in his new album: piggy back rides. Goblin is not remotely fun music. It is dark and angry and unwelcoming, even more universally unpleasant than the “rapey” and “homophobic” descriptions would lead one to believe. Essentially a rehash of the format of the first album, Bastard, it bears only a handful of legitimately compelling tracks, one of which is the leadoff single, “Yonkers.”

Tyler, the Creator – Yonkers

Everything else is lazy production, artless vitriol, pedestrian shock schlock, incessant insults to its listeners, and songs that appear designed as an exercise to see how many times someone can use “bitch” in his lyrics. The two worst offenders simply seem like antagonistic joke tunes, one of which doesn’t even feature Tyler’s rapping:

Tyler, the Creator with Jasper the Dolphin and Taco Bennett – Bitch Suck Dick

Tyler is not without talent. He has a particular minimal production aesthetic that is occasionally quite moving. He has an incredible rap voice and great cadence and delivery. There are fascinating moments on Bastard.

Tyler, the Creator with Hodgy Beats – French!

The problem now is that he’s all id and venom for every detractor and supporter and bystander equally. While that may be captivating for the time being, it’s not something that sustains great art; it’s what alienates foes and fans alike.

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THERAPY

The stories of Bastard and Goblin are apparently two of three sessions with Tyler’s pitch-dropped therapist character. He’s clearly troubled and aware of it. He’s ironic about treatment while admitting its importance. His sudden rise to fame gives him more fuel for the fire. No matter how much we’d like to see him harness his talent and forego the upsetting content, I don’t know how a fan base can possibly facilitate rehabilitation. For him, the music is therapeutic. And thankfully, most of these intense songs are among Tyler’s most memorable performances.

Tyler, the Creator – Bastard
Tyler, the Creator – Nightmare

But when does therapy go too far? Where do we draw the line when outlets for angst and rage force themselves upon others? It’s not a tenable relationship for listeners to give such leeway or for artists to expect so much.

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FRANK

At the end of Goblin Tyler reveals that his pitch-dropped therapist character is actually his conscience. The irony is that OFWGKTA’s conscience really is built into itself. Their lone R&B croon slinger (who should keep singing and stop rapping), Frank Ocean, manages to be consistently on the surprising side of all the talking points. Take, for example, the track “We All Try”, in which Ocean actually lists principles instead of making ruins:

Frank Ocean – We All Try

“I believe a woman’s temple gives her the right to choose.
But, baby, don’t abort.
I believe that marriage isn’t between a man and woman
But between love and love…
You must believe in something.
You’ve gotta believe in something.
I still believe in man…
I just don’t believe we’re wicked.
I know that we sin.
But I do believe we try.
We all try.”

The moral is precisely what makes us sympathize with Tyler. Look at that big, goofy smile. Most of us are Platonists: everyone starts out good and is merely corrupted. There has to be some good reason for Tyler to behave that way. There is, of course, his troubled relationship with his father, the anger from which is entirely legitimate. But here the comparison continues. Consider Frank Ocean’s take on being fatherless:

Frank Ocean – There Will Be Tears

Frank clearly has a different relationship with his feelings than his cohorts, of whom we imagine him singing: “These boys had no fathers neither. And they ain’t crying.” Instead of Tyler’s oft-quoted “I just want my father’s email so I can tell him how much I fucking hate him in detail,” Frank cries for his loss, even in the company of guarded friends.

Beyond these comparisons, the real dividing line between the two artists is Tyler’s absolutely abhorrent language regarding women. In Frank Ocean’s music, sexuality can be difficult and complicated without being abusive or misogynistic. The highlight of nostalgia, ultra, “Songs for Women,” shows the kind of vulnerability one can be found in where romantic feelings are involved.

Frank Ocean – Songs for Women

So we’re presented with the paradox of membership. In this celebrated and maligned collective are two individuals who appear to profess very different world views who create very different music. Yet they work and operate together quite intimately. How does Frank Ocean sit and where does he stand with all of this? Or Tyler, for that matter?

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FOR VIOLENCE

There is something deep and primal about the appeal of OFWGKTA. By the time they surfaced, the gun raps of pop gangsters (as well as their club lives and sexual escapades, which OFWGKTA similarly mock) had grown utterly tiresome, mundane, unmoving, unthreatening. Yet a large part of what is attractive in rap music is its threatening character. We love to feel equally dangerous and endangered. We cannot ignore the success of OFWGKTA as evidence of an extensive desire for violent content (musical or lyrical) that isn’t so bored and commonplace that it’s dismissed outright as fantasy. What we’re seeing here is a fan base that is exhilarated by merely wondering whether Tyler, the Creator is really a rapist. The adrenaline of violence, the passion for conquest, the simultaneous desire for both survival and extinction–these are triggered by the music, which resonates on a level of instinct beyond both morals and aesthetics.

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AGAINST VIOLENCE

But the violence is clearly generational too. I revisit a quote from Blood Meridian that’s been inspiring a good deal of my next album:

“For it is the death of the father to which the son is entitled and to which he is heir, more so than his goods. He will not hear of the small mean ways that tempered the man in life. He will not see him struggling in follies of his own devising. No. The world which he inherits bears him false witness. He is broken before a frozen god and he will never find his way.”

OFWGKTA are bastards in a more fundamental way than by just a lack of a father. Each new generation scrapes and claws for its footing in the world, against the world as it is, a world that is against its young, Saturn devouring his children. Generation Z have transformed the very nature of identity in a sociopsychological transmutation that suffers the physical world as a platform to explorations of a boundless cyberspace. It is too much science fiction for us. And too real to absorb. We are alien to the future. And so, we are to be destroyed.

The repeated acts of rape and the frequent use of the term “faggot” that are employed in this campaign are indeed disgusting and reprehensible. They are also circumstantial. Nothing menaces femininity and masculinity, respectively, in a more potent manner than this act and this insult. We are to be shaken from our foundations. Our false witness is to be purged.

Still, these kids aren’t anything like the gang in Graham Greene’s The Destructors, who would coldly and methodically dismantle the teetering edifice of the tired, old world. These are teenagers. I can remember how I felt being a teenager and I didn’t have much wrong with my life. We were “fuck all” too. OFWGKTA aren’t entirely far off. By which I mean, I don’t think they even get it. They’re too much blindly flailing about at the spectre of adulthood. Whatever intelligence these kids employ (and there is intelligence) is still not developed enough to give them all the credit for meta-commentary they’ve been showered with.

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ONLY ONE SWEATSHIRT

Lesser members like Hodgy Beats and Left Brain may continue to play with firearms. But it’s no mere coincidence that OFWGKTA’s most talented rapper traffics in the menace of hands-on violence unmediated by guns, in mortal combat at close distances with knives and blunt instruments, in unsettlingly painterly visions: Earl Sweatshirt.

In Earl’s instance, NPR’s directive is indeed worthwhile, though you shouldn’t be listening to the words themselves at all. Take but a few moments to hear the sound of Earl’s language and encounter a surpassingly smooth, round wordplay, easily gliding through vocabulary with an understanding of the palatable feeling of language, refreshing and textured, like chewing a wet sponge on a liquid-free diet. Consider what I believe to be the finest moment of the entire OFWGKTA ouvre:

Earl Sweatshirt – Stapleton

This track encompasses the highest highs and the lowest lows of the collective. The lurching beat is both incredibly disorienting and transcendently moving. The verses are disciplined, thematic, formalized. The chorus is vivid and utterly terrifying, the words of a deranged screen villain delivered with a jarring, cinematic effect:

“Tell your boyfriend that’s a bat and it’s a migraine.
Don’t ask why my jean’s splattered with these white stains.
Wait! Where you going? What you doing tonight?
Stop running. I just want to know what you’re doing.
Come back. Please?”

It’s chilling. Meanwhile, Earl proclaims himself a “rapist-in-training” and promises to “smack a faggot in his shirley temple.” From the heights to the depths: hateful, malicious, terrible language compromises what could be such a unique contribution to the musical landscape.

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FREE EARL

Beware when the Free Earl movement is delivered its messiah. The prodigal son will return bearing equally the promise of legitimizing the talent of OFWGKTA and of either confirming its intent to remain steeped in vile content or refining and elevating its content. With regard to Earl’s disappearance, his narrative is quickly becoming more complex by the news cycle. His talent runs in the family: he is apparently the son of South Africa’s most beloved poet. He has sought refuge of his own volition, contrary to initial reports claiming his mother sent him away to a boot camp. And he demands his space to reflect in a way that tempts us to reconcile his and his crew’s content with some higher moral inclinations.

When we meet Earl again, we may very well meet a grown man in command of his abilities, with a voice to temper the tide. We also might well not. Regardless, for now, while Earl is on his mysterious sojourn, we’ll have to weather the fearsome affirmation of his truest premonition, as mobs of reckless journalists, gold-rushing artists, salivating businessmen, and misguided listeners kneel at the OFWGKTA altar:

“Fans’ll stand in sleet season with their fucking feet bleeding,
In hail and fucking snow, in Hell with fucking coats.”

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FIGHTING WORDS

Which is all to say…

If OFWGKTA actually has any capacity to make truly lasting, moving, edifying music, I firmly throw my gauntlet:

Let’s see how compelling your content can be when you quit resorting to your tired, crass mainstays. Let’s see what you can do to menace me artfully. Let’s see what you can make when you spend more than ten minutes on a beat. Let’s see what happens when you choose quality over quantity, when you actually try to craft art instead of vomiting gall and bile on the world.

Until then, to OFWGKTA and all the architects of their moment:

Fuck you back. I’m over it.