Author Archives: Luke

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Hardcore Will Never Die

I would love to remember my first listen to Public Enemy’s Apocalypse ’91… The Empire Strikes Black. How ridiculous is it that a 10-year-old white kid would have chosen to spend his weekly allowance on that tape of all things, that my rap-enthusiast father would have been parentally advised and eagerly complicit? There’s just no way you could slip that tape in the deck and not feel like you were encountering something that demanded a far more complex response than “this is good music”. You had to feel assaulted and discombobulated. You had to feel white and subversive, the oppressor and oppressed, guilty and guilt-less, tourist and earnest. You had to feel totally pumped. I was 10 years old and listening to this…

Public Enemy – Lost at Birth

What?! After a five-second warning/threat/promise that “The future holds nothing else but confrontation”, Public Enemy are going to ease you into this album with a band roll-call set to the sounds of demolished relics and renegade emergency vehicles. It’s diabolically ill and there’s no way I could have understood it.

What brought me to the album was this video for the single “Can’t Truss It”, which I must have seen on The Box at some point because I keep picturing it obscured by scrolling jukebox numbers…

Public Enemy – Can’t Truss it

By then, I had seen videos for “Fight the Power” and “9-1-1 Is a Joke”, but this was different. I wanted more. Once I had it, I remember obsessing over “Can’t Truss It” and pouring over the lyrics in the liner notes. I remember wishing they had made a real song out of that first track, “Lost at Birth”. I remember wondering what Arizona had to do with anything. At some point, I moved on. I think my Dad borrowed/stole the tape from me. I didn’t revisit it again until college, when I worked for Buildings & Grounds, for whom I would rake leaves and remove trash among milling peers, seething in a righteous headphone bubble, clearing the way “for the S, the S1Ws”.

A couple of years ago, I happened upon the eBay auctions for the leftover Sandbox Automatic vinyl stock and picked up the “Nighttrain” single, not even remembering that it came from Apocalypse ’91. It didn’t matter–the album track isn’t even on the single. Instead, we get the “Get Up Get Involved Throwdown Mixx”…

Public Enemy – Nighttrain (Get Up Get Involved Throwdown Mixx)

Now that is a disgusting track. Though the album version has its virtues and sits naturally in the sequence, this one slays the album version and is just about one of the gnarliest, hardest, most hectic rap hits ever. It makes me want to wild out every time I hear it. I melt for that “oohwaayoooh” cut with the pitch slider in the chorus. I assume it’s Terminator X but it may well be the man talking all over the track’s background, unmistakably responsible for the alchemy: the one and only Pete Rock, who injects the harsh PE aesthetic with some nasty funk flavor that inspires a bit more dancing than the usual headbanging. As well as it works, CL Smooth guesting on a PE track doesn’t make a whole lot of sense beyond the obvious affiliation, so I find it distracting (same thing on Run-DMC’s take on this formula, “Down with the King”). Though I prefer the “Throwdown Mixx”, the “Pete Rock Strong Island Mt. Vernon Meltdown” on the B-side is pretty hot as well…

Public Enemy – Nighttrain (Pete Rock Strong Island Mt. Vernon Meltdown)

Pete Rock also provided the remix for another Apocalypse ’91 single, “Shut Em Down”…

Public Enemy – Shut ‘Em Down
Public Enemy – Shut ‘Em Down (Pete Rock Remix)

Both beats kill. But the first sounds far more distinctly PE; the PR remix works very well but sounds like a remix. Fortunately, when Pete Rock decides to drop his typically lackluster verse, Chuck’s superiority is abundantly clear and the quality of Chuck’s voice and delivery ultimately sell the product as a whole. But the style is more music than movement, which isn’t the Public Enemy aesthetic.

All Pete Rock contributions aside, Apocalypse ’91 is an amazing album. Public Enemy has to be the craziest pop group ever assembled. A vitriolic leader, an oddball jester, a silent giant on the decks, a dancing security corps, a Department of Information, an elusive but ubiquitous production squad. It’s elaborate theater and dead serious. And then you have the music. They put “Lost at Birth”, “Nighttrain”, and “Can’t Truss It” as three of the first four tracks on the album. It’s ruthless and relentless. The PE militia might as well be punching you in the face with the speakers. You can’t remove their politics here, but I mean to celebrate statement and grandeur. How can you not miss that kind of conviction in modern rap?

Step out of Your Toga

I love me some Destroyer. The academic cross-referencing, the subversive simplicity, the evolving character archive, the implicit misanthropy, the lazily bilious delivery, the obvious Bowie influence, the bad taste–it’s all part of a repertoire that drips with awkward, idiosyncratic swagger. Just take a look at what Bejar submitted to Merge Records as a list of “themes alluded to or avoided” in the forthcoming Destroyer album Kaputt:

Kaputt by Malaparte, which Bejar has never read… Kara Walker, specifically the lyrics she contributed to the song “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”… Chinatown, the neighborhood bordering on Bejar’s… Baby blue eyes… 80s Miles Davis… 90s Gil Evans… Last Tango in Paris… Nic Bragg, who played lead guitar on every song, again… Fretless bass… The hopelessness of the future of music… The pointlessness of writing songs for today… V-Drums… The superiority of poetry and plays… And what’s to become of film?… The Cocaine Addict… American Communism… Downtown, the neighborhood bordering on Bejar’s… The LinnDrum… Avalon and, more specifically, Boys and Girls… The devastated mind of JC/DC, who recorded, produced and mixed this record from fall of 2008 to spring of 2010… The back-up vocals of certain Roy Ayers and Long John Baldry tours… Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence…

I’ve been listening to the album illegally for the last couple of weeks and can’t seem to give it a rest. In it, Bejar raises his uncompromising manner for a turn towards an ’80s-infused smooth jazz-pop sound, complete with suave horns and sultry female backing vocals. And to promote the approaching release, he’s given us this video for the title track:

Amazing. The song itself has been one of my two favorite tracks on the album. The second chorus is one of the most transcendent moments in the Destroyer catalogue: “Step out of your toga and into the fog, you are a prince of the ocean.” It soars. And this video is outrageous: when the mirage evaporates as the stranded man pours a chalice full of sand into his delirious mouth; when that same man tries to drink from his chalice while he’s actually in the ocean; when a fucking whale is flying in the sky with a flock of birds; when the teenager pulls out a balloon and employs his last breath to inflate it and elevate himself into the sky!

The track that really has me proselytizing here is “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”, which tackles America’s racial issues with the help of the aforementioned artist and Merge Score! Volume 11 curator.

Destroyer – Suicide Demo for Kara Walker

According to the quote above, Kara Walker contributed lyrics to this song, but I wonder how much? Bejar just sells it so authentically. Off the bat, the title is pretty aggressive. After the pregnant, melancholy instrumental intro, what are we to expect? “Brown paper bag, don’t stop me now. I’m on a roll.” And we’re rolling. The music itself is fantastically catchy and an outright dance hit but the hooks elude us. Instead, we’re charmed along by a wealth of precious Destroyer moments: when he asks “Is it still the Invisible Man you’re consorting with, woman?”; when he tags on the prophecied “and they will” to the accusation that “New York just wants to see you naked”; when Bejar finally gives us that singular hook, crooning “You’ve got it all…” and then sneaks in “wrong” to flip the sentiment. And on and on.

But as the lyrics develop, this is clearly a heavier song than we’re used to from Bejar. And we have Kara Walker to thank for transporting his listeners to such a place of gravity. Despite his off-the-cuff performance, he’s delivering a poignant and unsettling critique of a polarized Obama era in which the hopeful produce of black presidency are borne with the memory of strange fruit, in which the nation’s grossest prejudices populate the daylight to defy progress, where “four more years” worries for “four hundred more years” of slavery, and the ghost of Harriet Tubman instructs us in the escapist/survivalist mantra: “I look up, I see the North Star, I look up, I see the North Star.” We’re given a glimpse into might have been their collaborative process in the cryptic lines “‘Maybe or maybe not… fast forward,’ she said. ‘Maybe once the seed is sown… fast forward,’ she said. ‘This bird has flown south’ she said. ‘Don’t talk about the south,’ she said.” Is this the evidence of a real-life conversation between Walker and Bejar about the future of our country? Perhaps and surely. While I don’t expect specific answers anytime soon, it’s easy to see that’s exactly what this song is. And who cares about the details of credit when we’re stretched across such a spectrum, from despair to ecstasy? We’re expanded.

And then they let the horns loose.

Fear of a Ten-Point-Oh

This week, Kanye West released his fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to rapt reviews. Quantifying the critical acclaim, Pitchfork gave the album an even 10.0. I don’t agree and I don’t approve. While I could have stomached a 9.5, clearly a 9.9 was not statement enough. That kind of statement I find to be nothing less than reckless journalism.

I understand the claim that it’s some kind of representative of a modern zeitgeist. I acknowledge the honoring of its boldness and musical adventurousness. I will credit the formidable creature it is and the remarkable ability of Kanye to allow his most personal work to be the most shared stage of his career. Indeed, there are virtues to be celebrated in this album. But saying it is perfect is not a reading of the album as a work in its own right–it is an appropriation of the work for an unclear cause in a way that ultimately invalidates the real value of the work by not really hearing it.

The aggressive review further discredits the album by setting the stage for a visceral reaction to its pronounced judgment that should be reserved for the experience of the music. Instead of approaching the album generously, I for one felt impelled to quickly compose a list of several reasons the album is not perfect and had to fight for even ground to come to some more objective decision on its worth. I continue to listen to the album; I find it to be more enjoyable with every listen. But I continue this list in my mind, spending every moment looking for things to dislike about it. I shake my head at dozens of clumsy production moments. I cringe at the continuation of his revolting string of blow-job raps. I raise my eyebrows at the way his guests out-perform him over and over. I marvel at the claim that Kanye is a better rapper than he ever has been, on an album full of awkward phrasings and generally lacking in the clever, disciplined constructions of songs like “Jesus Walks” or “Gold Digger.”

Aside from all these reasons of imperfection, the most celebrated and characteristic theme is the most vulnerable: honesty. Riding the success of his 808s and Heartbreak across the wake of the incredible Taylor Swift incident, Kanye is sharing more with his listeners than ever about his mistakes and missteps and misfortunes. But this sharing isn’t the kind of shockingly transformative cathartic experience that a band like Xiu Xiu provokes. It’s exotic, masturbatory self-indulgence, the likes of which could only exist in the bizarre microcosm of a superstar’s life of luxury and excess. It often feels like listening to an indulged child growing into adult desires.

Kanye raps like Caligula might. In “Monster”, he brags that “She said I bruised her esophagus.” In “Runaway”, Kanye says “I sent a bitch a picture of my dick.” In “Blame Game” he talks about fucking and strangling his lover in a bathroom. But details like these don’t surface in a 10.0. For critical cheerleaders, all of it is assembled into an ambiguous psychology and framed with a sense of Kanye’s humanity, thin veils that purport to forgive his transgressions by fabricating remorse. “Runaway” is not regretful; it is a parry to shame and embarrassment. It’s an anthem for kids in high school who tried to play it off like fucking up was cool when they really just couldn’t help it. The pretense of remorse is a disguise for a cowardly self-pity that cannot pledge to take a complaint seriously.

An unqualified celebration of this moment pays into a dangerous enabling cycle. Kanye errs; Kanye feels guilty; Kanye shares error and guilt in turn. Meanwhile, the public criticizes Kanye; the public forgives Kanye; and then the public admonishes Kanye for the transparency of his errors. The more transparent he is, the more people love him. But the more aggressively Kanye shares his faults, the more his fans respond to the content of his art, validating and encouraging it more and more.

Pitchfork is complicit in this, verifying the appropriateness of this kind of art for not only Kanye and his fans, but for other artists. Which is not to say that music critics have any responsibility to some kind of moral rehabilitation of artists. Artists are fucked up and a lot of the time that makes for great music. But it’s dangerous to herald honesty in art without certain essential conditions, foremost among them being the evidence of a transcendent, historical, timeless accomplishment; the “art for art’s sake” argument is bogus here because as good as this album might be, there’s no way it is perfect.

In fact, the only moment resembling such transcendence comes in the last track, whose finally calmed beat, disciplined and compelling at last, platforms a snippet of a beautifully lacerating Gil Scott-Heron poem, the one extended meditation on something larger than being a judged celebrity. Here now we are free from the Kanyesque quagmire of license and paparazzi, as Scott-Heron muses on grave concerns of freedom and politics, of race and revolution, of human needs and global tyranny. As I sober from reveling in the powerful moment, I react ambivalently to Kanye’s use of the claim that “All I want is a good home and a wife and children and some food to feed them every night.” On the one hand, I feel compassion and pity for a man who I can easily imagine knowing such a simple and universal desire; on the other hand, I reel in bewilderment at the appropriation of such a phrase in the seriousness of its context with no regard for the incredible excess of his glamour life. In a reading of the poem’s original lyrics, I cannot help but find in the edited content a call to Kanye for greater action and a condemnation of Pitchfork for the levity of its piggy-backing pom-poms.

Don’t Sleep

For the independent music world, it might seem like a strange bad dream to have Mountain Dew start a record label and go around snatching upstart acts for a roster that looks like it’s run by someone at Vice. Sure, it’s a singles only label and Chuck Inglish of the The Cool Kids says it’s okay. Let’s just say I’m suspicious. I’m all for folks getting theirs. But where does soda end and where do I begin? Green Label Sound‘s most recent foray is via Neon Indian’s new single, “Sleep Paralysist”, which also happens to have been recorded and/or produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor. Neon Indian is one Alan Palomo, who made a big splash last year with the characteristically 2009 song “Deadbeat Summer” and the album Psychic Chasms. According to Stereogum, he describes his sound as “Childhood re-contextualized through a psychedelic, lo-fi filter. The idea of memory before you were old enough to have memories.” I take it he means to suggest he was born in the late 80s and can’t remember what the music sounded like though he lived through some of it; he intends to replicate it nonetheless. And that’s all good when it’s good, which it is.

Neon Indian – Sleep Paralysist

Whereas “Deadbeat Summer” was enjoyable albeit largely forgettable, Neon Indian raise the stakes on this one. To begin, the aesthetic has been seriously glossed up on this one. The full stereo field pulses with swelling and arpeggiated synth sounds that make me wish I knew more about synthesizers than I do. And the songwriting is expertly catchy. The variations throughout the verses on the “something you don’t know, something I don’t know, something they don’t know” format is straight out of a professional songbook. While I can’t understand a lot of the words, what I think I hear immediately resonates. There’s a terrible dread in the moment of satisfaction at the knowledge that it will all come to an end naturally. Palomo sings in the chorus “I’m for you when I’m awake so just don’t sleep. In the morning it will all seem fake.” The solution to hanging on is simple; it is also impossible.

The only criticism I have of the track is that it’s full of harsh sibilance, something I find myself being especially sensitive to these days and something you would not expect of someone like Chris Taylor or anyone of such notoriety. There are so many tools for folks of some resource to avoid that problem. But don’t let my engineering gripe spoil it for you. This song’s a keeper.