Category Archives: Thoughts

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.

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.

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.

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.

On Boo Radley Bruises Badly

Before Initials B.R., there was Boo Radley. Here’s what he had to say about his one and only, Boo Radley Bruises Badly.

From the mouth of someone more inclined to synopses of major life episodes, 2003 in a nutshell reads something like this:

“An escalating romance falls disastrously to the wayside when, a year shy of graduation, Luke Kirkland moves across the country with his band, Night Rally to give a music career the old college try instead.”

Unfortunately, brevity has never been my strong point. Instead, I find it’s taken almost three years to sort through what happened that year and 70-something minutes to narrate it. Boo Radley Bruises Badly is a twelve song sculpture of those twelve months, a four course conclusion to a four season psychologue, an album of opposites and obstacles, of assimilation and isolation, and a mess of confusion becoming perfectly certain of what it’s doing.

Perhaps too certain…

I’ve always feared becoming an apologist for Boo Radley Bruises Badly. Perhaps I’m too quick to assume the listener’s surprise upon hearing split personalities duel for the spotlight. “I’m listening to a love song. Now I’m listening to a rap song. Again, love. Rap. Hmmm. I’m confused.” How are we to justify the juxtaposition of such musical styles? It was never my intention to become a musical Dr. Moreau, piecing and pasting spasmodically at whim. On the contrary, Boo Radley was a rap alias confined to a world that had transformed suddenly and dramatically and whose narrative had been and was being sussed out into rock songs. Boo Radley Bruises Badly became a coping mechanism, a project without conditions beyond the consideration of the events of 2003, and ultimately a collection of songs that could only stand apart from one another at the risk of sacrificing the gestalt and misunderstanding the narrative.

But this conflagration is a convenient opportunity for a larger musical discussion. On the one hand, escaping the love song in rock music is impossible. Songwriters incessantly delving into their personal love lives comprises the great majority of rock music’s subjects. The romance of the breakup song or of the unrequited love song remains so appealing to the musical audience largely because of the excitement not of meeting one’s match, but of pursuing one’s match. On the other hand, rap music and the “hip-hop” culture in many ways approaches a celebration of pure escapism. While the content of many songs attempts to elevate or address problems of great import affecting the artists, there is nevertheless a violent opposition to the conditions of earthly life. In fact, the urgency of the sentiment is nearly apocalyptic and/or suicidal in nature and expresses itself as a desperate lashing out at all who might represent and/or fulfill the weaknesses of earthly life. In the end, both are concerned about encountering something else that can be both one’s glory and one’s downfall. For rock, the love song is the yearning for the other. For rap, the battle is the yearning for the other.

Despite the success of artists like DJ Shadow and the “Get Paid” rap industry machinery still supporting producers such as Kanye West, I find it hard to imagine that Boo Radley Bruises Badly could ever be released legitimately. The number of samples I’ve co-opted for my own psychiatric ends could never be fully given their due. Ever since the crime spree that was P. Diddy’s career, the successes of the rap world have relied increasingly on original beats. The sampling hey-day is long gone. No one can afford it anymore. But while I would never insist that a musician be denied his monetary compensation for the use of his recorded material, it is unfortunate that artists can’t be honest about their inspiration. A million hacks with guitars have ripped off other artists’ songs without batting an eyelash and without the Puritanical slap on the wrist of a “Cease And Desist”. Doubtlessly, there is something innately shameful about the sample. The feeling of dependence upon others for inspiration or of incompetence in comparison to those who have influenced will always soil the creative achievement in some manner. But as if this weren’t enough, many go so far as to label those who sample as thieves and condemn the practice as destructive to the spirit of artistry or to the gasping illusion of a rock and roll ethos. Musicians are thieves first and foremost. It just so happens some build beautiful artifices out of the many things that fit into pockets. We should be so lucky as to profess our debt openly without being assaulted by the weapons of those who falsely claim license to cast the first stones, be they rolling or otherwise.

Ironically, the recording’s fate is potentially the same as that of Harper Lee’s hero: its public life will remain a relatively private one. As is the case in To Kill A Mockingbird, I don’t guess that’s such a bad thing. Nevertheless, Boo Radley will push on in his guise, though this guise will, from here on out, enjoy rap’s respite exclusively. Love songs will perhaps find their moments or even their proverbial R&B hooks within the bounds of their rap counterparts. But they will be few and slight impressions on a dreaming recluse whose monogrammed chest will be henceforth embroidered Initials B.R.