Thursday, April 30, 2009

So so so OTM.

"But by hour two the charm of the flashback wears off. Memory lane becomes a desolate highway, even if you know all the words to every song. By the time you reach the Hollywood Palladium show on disc three, you don’t care how good it is. You’re ready for the trip to end." Jessica Hopper on Jane's Addiction's latest money-grubbing barrel-scraping. Anyone who's read Whores, the band's oral history, will remember this exact sensation, as the charisma that was the band's greatest gift erodes before your very eyes--or in the box's case (if Hopper is right, and why wouldn't she be?), ears.

Pop Stalinism lives, at least if Arthur Russell's Sleeping Bag Sessions is any indication. Sure I'm glad Bonzo Goes to Washington's "5 Minutes" has been officially digitized for future generations to shrug at, the "drooling erotic glee" (Dave Marsh's phrase) of Reagan's infamous on-mike pronouncement aside, but claiming it as Russell's creation when all he did was mix it (the alias belonged not to Russell but to Jerry Harrison and Bootsy Collins) is stretching it quite a little bit. Jess Harvell has more here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Deejaying is weird. Douglas Wolk did a terrific presentation about it at EMP, right after my own (we keep appearing on the same panels there, not a complaint in the least), attempting to explain and demonstrate its lack of corporeality--you're not the musician and you're not the dancer/audience, you might as well not exist except that in the settings where you can/do DJ those elements don't or wouldn't necessarily meet otherwise. But setting is important, and when I DJ at Havana (Wednesdays, 7 to 9 p.m., Pike St. between 10th and 11th, behind the iron gates) it's not radio deejaying and it's not dance deejaying. Since Daylight Savings, the club is bright for at least the first hour of the set, and that adds something to the set and setting I have to consider as well. I don't have to keep a groove but I don't want to jerk things around for jerking-around's sake--I like right-angled segues for damn sure, but mostly it's people having after-work drinks and talking, and I have to be mindful of that.

It's really fucking fun. Sometimes it's tough; for a few weeks in March and early April it was hard to get a grip on where I was going with things, and it took a while each time to figure out the groove. The reason clubs are kept dark isn't just because it looses inhibition (I remember the first time I tried my hands doing stage lights during a First Avenue dance night; the great Kate Zarvis taught me that the you don't blind the dancers with color because they stop dancing when you do). It's because it allows you to control the vibe: a DJ projects most easily onto a darkened canvas. It's you and the listener, or rather your selections and the listener, mind to mind.

Two weeks ago I took mushrooms and went to play at Havana. I rode there on the bus, as I always do, the sun bright in my face down Pine St.; I knew it was going to be special, and it was. I brought the usual stuff, but once there I decided to play the most gorgeous records I could pull out, and began with Franco & O.K. Jazz's atomic, ten-minute "Limbisa Ngai," from the mid-'80s, which I'd played at home earlier in the day, when the mushrooms were kicking in. "Limbisa Ngai" is up there for me with "That's the Joint" and "Apache" and "Lonely Woman" and "Rock Your Baby" and two-dozen more as a legitimate contender for the greatest record ever made. The sunshine kept doing its work even after the sun went down. I wound up playing for a half-hour over my time, something I never do; I never even looked at the clock. My good friends Jen and Jill sat at one table, my newer friend Erin and a companion at another, and I bounced between them and the set-up. I've never had such a good time playing music for people.

Last week no one I knew came by. (There are a couple of regulars that I see in there a lot, but they're friends of the bartender.) It was overcast. I kept the tempos medium and the feel muted. It was satisfying, though not in the same way--it couldn't have been, would have been a lie to try to capture that again, and not just because I wasn't zooming. Havana is a big place, very high ceilings, enormous windows; what's outside is inside, at least before dark. Even if I'm not entirely there--the music is what fills the space, not what I think of the music--that additional factor has taught me a lot about the relationship between the component parts of a DJ set. I have no real skillz to speak of, and doubt I'll ever acquire them. But if I get to play records out in New York when I eventually move there (who knows when at this point), I'll be lucky if I get to do it somewhere half so inviting.

I've said here before that my two favorite albums this year are DJ Koze's Reincarnations: The Remix Chapter 2001-2009 (Get Physical) and Art Brut vs. Satan (Downtown), though not in so many words. I've known it before this week, but the sunshine Seattle's mostly had lately (finally) and the relative lack of clutter in my house has made it even clearer. They play like yin and yang to me right now, bouncing off one another and getting in my head all the time; they're part of my life, the place I hoped they'd eventually get to. Loads of records sound real good and are impressive, but these two are now permanently markered on my wrists like re-entry stamps; they are April 2009, after EMP Pop Conference and before who knows what--summer, yeah, but more than that is harder to tell at the moment. (Flux is a permanent condition and one I adjust to decently, but that doesn't mean it's much fun.) If you can't identify with Art Brut's songs about, let's see here, eating sugared cereal and reading comics, taking public transportation, obsessing over pop music to the point of staying up all night and/or being unable to stop yourself from singing along to records before other people hear you, discovering bands later than you're "supposed" to, and living/partying like someone half your age when you really ought to know better, because these resolutely immature acts aren't just fun, they're totally normal, in fact you can't begin to understand why the entire world isn't doing it too--if you can't identify with these things, I envy the living hell out of you.

Art Brut's songs are my life; Koze's remixes are my ideal. They're vaporous, heady, whimsical, charmed; the tracks endlessly reinvent themselves as they spin out--never mind the ways they reinvent the source material. It grows more and more apparent with every play that his core strength is that he isn't just throwing random weirdo shit at the wall--some of the best stuff does little more than shift around the furniture that was already there. It took weeks to finally admit to myself that I didn't just want to hear Koze's remix of Heiko Voss's "I Think About You" because I like the original but because this version, which doesn't sound especially different from the original, airs it out so expertly: the vocals stretch out, the already gauzy quality turns into a fine mist. The subtlety is what gets me: he makes an attractive face that much prettier by tweaking an eyebrow's arc and daubing out a couple of freckles. (I haven't A-B'ed them, so forgive me if I sound as airy as the music I'm trying to describe.) He makes Hildegard Knef's "Ich Liebe Euch" into a 3D version of itself: throwing reverb onto the strings, dipping the backing vocals into amber and drying out the lead singer till his voice sounds like a transmission from '40s radio. In Koze's hands, Matthew Dear's "Elementary Lover" is colorful and crazy-landscaped like What's Opera, Doc?, and it ends with this sped-up sample: "Thank you! We've all enjoyed being here tonight! You've been a great audience! We're gonna close with a song for all you dreamers!" It's funny and it's big-hearted and it's tongue-in-cheek and it's devastatingly accurate. I melt every single time I hear it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What a unique time we live in, and how perfect for my temperament. I'm a chronic worrier, and I have never been so worried for so many people. Not just my immediate friends and family but people I haven't talked to in years--some of them have kids now and do what I do and, yeah, I worry. Or at least wonder. I'm sure some of those folks and I have nothing to talk about--in a few cases, we never really did, not that it ever stopped me from trying to barrel forward and forge some kind of meaningful friendship out of what I couldn't see was really nothing, since I was too excited to meet other people who liked the same things I did, when I hadn't really before, to see otherwise. Minneapolis is still very real to me, embarrassingly so--I cringe when I realize what an utter puppy dog I was in my early 20s, just as I cringe to realize how much put-on hauteur I had the last time I was in Seattle. New York wasn't much better either, at least as I recollect it. (The first time, I mean; the second time was utter hell, and I knew it at the time.) I worry for myself, too: what I can do to earn a living, how I can get back to NYC to be with Angela, whether the big projects I hope to accomplish, if in fact anyone will want or care to see those projects. Angela's in grad school--she's worried too. We're coming up on a year apart in just over a week; the first eight months we were apart as well, and loneliness adds to the worry.

It bubbles up at odd times. Last night I decided to get a late dinner in the International District--lots of Chinese places open late, two of which I frequent. Honey Court's open later, so I went there. (Hing Loon closes earlier, and is the one I prefer.) I started walking, uncertain where I'd go; when a 43 bus crept up on me, I met it at the stop and took it downtown, then walked to the I.D. When I first moved back to Seattle in 2001 for the Weekly job, I was so keyed up that walking through Belltown to my apartment there scared me when it shouldn't have: the worst that could have happened was that some shiny-shirted club-hoppers might have bumped into me on their way to the gutter they were preparing to vomit into. The walk last night was similar, though I didn't feel in any particular danger--quite the opposite. I just felt like I might combust. Eating helped; so did reading Andreas Killen's 1973 Nervous Breakdown for the 800th or so time.

I remember buying that book vividly. It was '06, second time in NYC, and I'd just finished reading Jonathan Mahler's Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning. I was walking into the Union Square Barnes & Noble, thinking about how much I liked that book and how much I wanted to read another book about a year. (Ladies and Gentlemen chronicles the summer of 1977 in New York.) That was the precise wording in my head when I opened the door, and there was Killen's book sitting there in front of me, a near-instantaneous answer. I wound up liking it even more, since I tend to like reading about ideas more than narrative. The "Warholism" chapter, as well as the congee and kung pao chicken, took me out of myself and back to normal in a way that sitting at my laptop and playing Scramble on Facebook for hours at a time, for its considerable charm, just couldn't.

FINALLY. (Thanks, Kate.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

I've been contributing to The Singles Jukebox recently, writing short blurbs about the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Pink, Maia Hirasawa, Green Day, Boy Better Know, Blackout Crew, Blazin' Squad, Jeremih, Shontelle ft. Akon, Just Jack, and Herman Dune. More to come, of course--and with any luck I'll soon be announcing some more singles-oriented writing here as well.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I could feel a lot worse about Art Brut vs. Satan being my favorite original album of 2009 so far (the DJ Koze and Ada compilations don't really count), but it's probably got something to do with feeling more basically honest about myself. Yep, this dork is who I am, really, only he's so much funnier and more enjoyable about it than I tend to be, and he makes hopeless pop fandom seem every bit as charming as he finds it. I like his riffs and his band and his producer, too. I won't cry if it ends up in my Top 3, either, though the year is too young and, let's face it, this album is ultimately too slight. It's identity art, and I identify.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hahaha OMG I just put on The Detroit Connection Pt. 4, mixed by Detroit Grand Pubahs. Track 5, the DGP's prev. unrel. "Blacula's Drack," and guess what pops up? "In the beginning, there was Jack . . ."

Monday, April 20, 2009

It's been a while since I took notes at EMP, but this year I had a splendid time and of course learned a ton. I've gotten good feedback on my presentation as well, on Chuck Roberts' "My House" a cappella--house music's unofficial national anthem, a post-standard, and now available as an MP3 thanks to Oliver Wang, who graciously praised my paper. (What I saw of his was well done, as usual.) I plan to do something longer with it, but this is what I delivered last Wendesday:

HOUSE IS A FEELING (for Rickey Wright) [edited for print]
(Experience Music Project, April 17, 2009)

Call a person a tool and it’s an insult. Call a record one and it’s not—not in DJ circles. There, a tool is a record that serves a specific purpose, like a Phillips screwdriver or an Allen wrench. Simply put, it’s a recording of one basic element that a DJ uses to layer over other records, which are sometimes tools themselves. A tool can be a drum break that’s been looped for several minutes—in hip-hop these are also called “battle weapons,” utilized for scratching contests—or a locked groove that plays continuously until you pick the needle up, like the one Jeff Mills made in 1994.

Maybe the most important tool in house music is the unaccompanied vocal: the a cappella. Mostly these are issued by anonymous labels and feature about a dozen vocals from well-known disco divas: Loleatta Holloway, First Choice, Jocelyn Brown. Any decent DJ shop has a small a cappella section—I counted eight the other day at the local store Zion’s Gate. House music has always genuflected toward its disco parents, and flying in a well-loved vocal on top of a hot track connects you to a tradition—maybe not in a way that’s deep, to use that most heavily abused of dance-music terms, but enough to signal that you have some grounding in the stuff.

But a sung a cappella is tricky to play over a track. You have to have some DJ skill to pull it off, at least if you’re only playing vinyl—the longtime standard, even if it’s far less common now. Let me show you what I mean.

(Play these both at the same time)

That’s what you call a “train wreck.” Obviously, lining these things up takes some patience and ability. But utilizing spoken words rather than a cappella singing is a different ballgame. Spoken word over just about any instrumental music is a kind of DJ fail-safe—any idiot can sound good. Especially if they play house music, and if the a cappella they’re using is this one.

That’s Chuck Roberts, a Chicagoan, from “My House,” a 1987 recording by Rhythm Controll (spelled with two L’s), on the Windy City’s Catch a Beat Records. Originally, the vocal was part of a larger musical framework: the “Long Version” of “My House,” from the same 12-inch.

If you’ve heard Roberts’ sermon set to music before, chances are it wasn’t that music. For one thing, the Rhythm Controll record is very rare: Discogs’ cheapest copy of the Catch a Beat 12-inch goes for $88, the most expensive for more than $500. Last year there was a limited edition bootleg repressing, which is already going for $62. For another thing, the a cappella was snatched up by another Chicagoan, Larry Heard, a.k.a. Mr. Fingers, who’d had a club hit in 1986 with “Can You Feel It?” In 1988, Heard reissued the song and added a little something extra.

This version of the “My House” a cappella helped turn it into house music’s unofficial national anthem. If a dozen other artists playing “Crazy” or “Umbrella” in concert while they were still on the charts make them modern standards, Heard’s claim jump helped to make “My House” a post-standard—a song known as much or more for the way it’s been sampled or remixed as for attracting cover versions.

The other thing that made it work was that it evoked house’s fast-solidifying origin story. House had made the U.K. charts in 1986 and, along with the drug ecstasy, would inspire the rise of rave culture in England: 1988 was the U.K.’s Second Summer of Love. By that point, house’s rise had been chronicled in detail by the British press; its creation myth was in place. A lot of early house records had taken as their subject house music itself, often simply by throwing the word “house” into every goddamn crevice that would admit it. So a song celebrating the music’s own creation myth could not have been better timed. Particularly as it was a sermon, the echo on Chuck Roberts’ voice evoking both pulpit and town hall: religion and politics. It’s not a coincidence that in 1988, Mr. Fingers also released this version of “Can You Feel It.”

Early Chicago house was escapist with a political streak, from Jamie Principle shouting down apartheid to the identity politics at the heart of the largely black and gay scene. House was a music of misfits and outcasts, like disco had been, and Chuck Roberts’ words were aimed straight at them.

“House is a feeling.” Dozens of tracks have sampled that phrase; I found about two-dozen tracks on Discogs called “House Is a Feeling,” and it’s the name of Irish dance critic Ronan Fitzgerald’s blog. It made its way into early jungle as well, particularly Cloud 9’s “You Got Me Burnin’,” which took Roberts’ bromide and turned it sinister:

Cloud 9, “You Got Me Burnin’ (Remix)” (zSHARE)

More than anything, though, the phrase has become the ultimate go-to explanation-slash-defense-slash-justification of the scene: you can’t judge it till you’ve been there. With club cultures, that’s generally right. And in the case of “My House,” it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, no doubt on purpose. Gross generalization time: almost everyone in America who knows the a cappella either was or is a habitué of nighclubs and/or raves; very few others know it at all. But although “My House” is best known via Mr. Fingers, its greatest strength is, indeed, as a tool.

Listen again to the a cappella. It’s stirring, sure, but it’s also pretty damn corny. But that’s fine—on a dance floor, sweating, open to stimulus and emotion, its job is to sneak up on you and push you over the edge. Arms in the air, head back, joints loose: it’s never more devastatingly effective than when you don’t see it coming. It works best when the track it’s paired with is as propulsive as the a cappalla itself. To prove it, play the a cappella at the same time as the instrumental portions of the following tracks. (It works nearly as well with other kinds of instrumental tracks as well—even non-house ones.)

Genius move to give the new RA Podcast to Bill Brewster, co-author of the definitive DJ history Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, and based on this one hell of a selector. He doesn't go overboard on the mixing, either; this is very pleasurable. So, in a different way, is this Geko Jones set from Moglo Radio--late March, since the blog post that has it is dated April 1. It's a radio show: back announcing, little real mixing, and that electric feeling that you're sharing this with lots of other people. The selections are superb; I anticipate going back to this one a lot. Thanks to Kristal Hawkins for showing it to me.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Via Mike McGonigal on Facebook twitter: Free Music Archive, a cool-looking curated MP3 link site.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Eric Weisbard just told me about this: Billboard, 1942-present, on Google Book Search. Edit: It isn't at all complete--1979-92 is missing, which really is too bad, since I want to look at that period in particular. Still, one hell of a find.

Sometimes I miss writing Project X; looking at this is one of those times. Also today, from same, this immortal line: "horny sluts traditionally make great rappers."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Absolutely amazing.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Need to get the hang of writing something I'm not really in any particular mood about more often. When I'm really concerned about getting everything right, I usually spend forever clearing my throat and then abandoning it altogether; walk away from the laptop and the idea comes whole, rush back to write it down and find myself clearing my throat again and skittering from it without meaning to. When I know what I want to say and I'm feeling matter-of-fact about it, that's when things come out quickly.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Ultra High Frequency, "We're on the Right Track": early disco, off Philly Groove: Early Singles Volume 2, features that descending three-note riff played simultaneously on guitar and vibes, then horns, and doubled by the vocal in the middle of the verses--the song's greatest hook isn't even its chorus. The singing is nothing: straining high tenor keening at the notes' edges; the backing singers on the title phrase have far more presence. But that anonymous quality is part of what makes the record transporting: the music is bigger than the singer, something to be swept up in, all those strings and horns (and that quick rhythm guitar lick after the three-notes-down riff) and the choo-chooing rhythm on the drums (which sound fantastic) giving it serious drive. The train noises, of course, link it with other transportation-minded R&B from, at minimum, the '40s on.

I missed this post the first time around, by Bret Thorn, a food writer I know through Andy Battaglia; they're old work friends from before Andy went to the A.V. Club. Both his points, about beta beating alpha as a current impulse and the death of institutional memory, are completely on the money.

Q1 '09 albums, a list probably even less meaningful than the Top 40 singles:

1. DJ Koze, Reincarnations: The Remix Chapter 2001-2009 (Get Physical)
2. Ada, Adaptations: Mixtape #1 (Kompakt)
3. A-Trak, FabricLive 45 (Fabric)
4. Henrik Schwarz, Ame & Dixon, The Grandfather Paradox (BBE)
5. Afrobutt, Wunderbutt (Electric Minds)
6. The Juan MacLean, The Future Will Come (DFA)
7. Dan Deacon, Bromst (Carpark)
8. Junior Boys, Begone Dull Care (Domino)
9. Stefan Goldmann, The Empty Foxhole (Mule Electronic)
10. Diego Bernal, For Corners (Exponential)

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

I quit MySpace yesterday, long after its usefulness had exhausted itself. If a disused blog has comments boxes, they fill up with spam, and something similar has been happening with MySpace in the past couple years, only instead of being subject to random bugs and plants, the ever-more-desperate attempts to keep up with Facebook and Twitter have polluted the thing with visual noise--like a city block going to seed, strewn with graffiti and random junk, all of which make the thing more difficult to navigate. And no one did it to them but themselves.

Recently a friend expressed surprise that people would abandon Facebook if it starts charging to use it; she figures it's so central she's happy to pony up. I agreed at the time, but I'm not so sure now. I don't think my life will end if I don't spend my late nights trying to play Scrabble rip-off games with strangers. (Which I haven't done in about a month, actually. I'm down to one game, with my friend Jessi.) Or rather, it's bad enough I'm doing this totally silly, useless shit for free--I should pay for it now? Anyway, I abandoned Friendster a lot quicker than I did MySpace, mostly because my early correspondence with Angela was conducted via MySpace. That's all on a Word document now.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Last year, at the end of my monthlong train trip back to Seattle from New York, I was in Portland and went to Powell's, and bought Ken Garner's The Peel Sessions. I think I've mentioned it here before; for sheer volume of geek-bliss data, this book is well worth your time. I'm looking through the Peel shows by date--which sessions were played, repeats in parentheses. Friday, Octobr 9, 1993: the sessions were Bratmobile and Orbital. Yep, I think I remember that 1993 really fucking well.

Wow, a website redesign that actually improves things. I do hope someone at Pitchfork and/or Facebook is taking notes.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Can't believe I haven't mentioned this yet. I only watched the first two, on which they were obviously finding their feet, but I'm a sucker for people who clearly just can't help themselves.