Thursday, February 09, 2006

Earlier today, I received and accepted an offer to become managing editor for eMusic, the indie-label-specialist online MP3 store, in New York. I begin work there March 20, and my final day at Seattle Weekly will be Friday, March 10.

This will end my second tenure at the paper; I was calendar editor and staff writer from October 1999 to March 2001, and came back in June 2003 as music editor. The latter, especially, has been amazingly rewarding. I’ve worked with some of the best music (and other) writers around, put together a section I was consistently proud of week after week. I think the work speaks for itself. But I'm still grateful to everyone who wrote for me here, and am VERY excited to be going to New York again. More details as they happen.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Of course, I can talk all I want about offering bait to easily-trapped GBV fans on ILM but the second some arch-rockist asshole emails me (about a 19-month-old, tossed-off blogpost!) I of course rise like the sun. I won't give the person the honor of bothering to mention their name (hint: author of at least four of the most embarrassingly ADD-addled and creepily submerged-misogynistic pieces of popcrit ever, in my hometown weekly, by which I do not mean Seattle or New York), but they found my characterization of their writing to have violent undertones! That's really cute. It's also a red flag, or should have been. Anyway the exchange ended with me calling them an idiot. Resolution for '06: stop responding to this shit.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Me on a great cover version.

Eagle-eyed blogwatcher Richard Cobeen writes: "Parker's third album was Stick to Me, which was generally greeted with mediocre reviews. Was Reynolds referring to Squeezing Out Sparks, Graham's fourth album?" Indeed he was, and I missed it too. Thanks for the catch. Cobeen goes on: "[W]hile I agree that it has not dated well, it did and does not sound as dead-from-the-get-go as Arrested Development (although to see that eight of the next nine albums behind it in P&J are classics, with Petty as the only headshaker, is to wonder)." Agreed also.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Because it’s obviously not been discussed enough on music blogs and message boards and in the press, let’s try to break down rockism and popism again, shall we? Here, I’ll do it super fast:

Voting for an album or single in Pazz & Jop = popist
Voting for an artist in Pazz & Jop = rockist

Of course that’s stupidly formulaic; so is the entire argument. But it’s one Simon is pushing re: M.I.A. and P&J, so I’ll play along. He argues that anyone convinced that Arular went to no. 2 in the albums poll on its plastic-fun merits is kidding themselves--obviously she’s up there because people find her Meaningful. Given what the company the album is in, what I want to know is who in their right mind actually thinks she won on plastic-fun points. Answer: No one I know and probably no one Simon knows, either, except the strawman he keeps erecting in order to bitch about M.I.A. some more since it’s gotten more obvious that the “she’ll be gone in a year” talk he helped speed along ended up not actually coming true. Now she’ll be gone in two. Or five, or ten, or whatever--the point is, she’ll be gone, damn it, at some future date, and then he can have the last laugh, preferably to the strains of In Memoriam Gilles Deleuze, which I'm sure he still plays all the time.

He can have that last laugh if he wants--given how much I respect, like, and have learned from the guy, I’d hardly begrudge Simon his fun. He might even be right, though the fact that I first heard “Galang,” what do you know, two years ago now and my affection for it and her are essentially unabated does make me wonder. Nevertheless, a few things stand out in Simon’s formulation that seem pretty wrong to me.

For starters, the Arrested Development comparison. Not only does Arular slam where AD glided, M.I.A.’s source material--there’s very little melodic instrumentation on Arular; the beats and bass do much of the non-vocal work--is hardly reassuringly familiar to mom-and-dad types the way 3 Years’ folk and old-soul swipes were. He may well be right about soft-left/middlebrow consensus, but although I haven’t bothered with 3 Years since it bored me stiff 14 years ago, I honestly don’t remember Speech advocating terrorism, however ambivalently. And yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty big difference.

The idea that Los Lobos’ How Will the Wolf Survive? and Elvis Costello’s King of America “didn’t mean diddly outside the crit-bubbleworld” should be rephrased: They didn’t mean diddly inside Simon’s crit-bubbleworld, coming soon to a Dissensus thread near you. I don’t expect Simon to know jack shit about the music No Depression covers anymore than I expect a scene feature on grime in fRoots, but “it’s not my thing at all” does not now and never has translated into “it’s nobody’s thing at all.”

I enjoyed and largely agree with his framework for the poll’s rockist leanings, though it feels closer to the mid-’80s than the early ’70s in terms of deja vu, maybe because most of the singer-songwriters are in bands rather than solo-with-studio-backup. (As far as lit-rock goes, I feel almost churlish bringing this up, but that’s what people have been calling the Decemberists for a couple years now. Damn it, another neologism already claimed!)

If Arular has a precedent in P&J it isn’t any of the albums Simon claims (and before I forget, he’s absolutely right about Graham Parker’s third album, as much a curio today as Arrested Development), it’s Moby’s Everything Is Wrong, No. 3 in 1995. On that album, an auteur-type bedroom recordist crafted a shortish pop-formatted guide through versions of a bunch of strains of club-oriented music that a lot of aging critics (not old, per se, but late-20s on--old enough to go clubbing less often, at least) sort of liked but couldn’t quite get a handle on. He wasn’t shy about doing interviews, either. And he preceded his big move with a couple of underground club hits memorable enough to land on critics’ polls before the album dropped. Moby went on to a pretty lucrative career; M.I.A. might or might not. But strictly in album terms, that’s how Arular strikes me. Whether this means whatever comes next will receive guaranteed set-aside votes remains to be seen. When the White Stripes and the New Pornographers land in the top ten with their least interesting albums, what do you blame, old-favorites syndrome or a shitty year? Probably both, but still.

Arular making the top of my own list has relatively little to do with my weariness with the arguments she’s engendered. For one thing, I don’t care whether she’s Important or not; she can make 50 lousy follow-ups and that album is still going to sound great to me. (So maybe the point of comparison is actually Tricky, by whom I never need hear anything again that isn’t on Maxinquaye, aside from “Poems”--Woebot got that so, so right.) For another, how ironic is it that a whole lot of the people who agree with the Simon brigade about M.I.A. tend to be the kind of Guided by Voices fan-addicts who rise to the bait everytime I offer it on ILM? Now there’s a bipartisan committee. (For some reason, M.I.A.’s lack of sales keeps being brought up by members of both parties. Just like the Ghost Box and Fading Captain catalogues, right? How is this even an issue?)

It’s interesting, too, how much the anti-M.I.A. argument resembles that of another female artist a lot of people were absolutely positively certain would be gone from the public consciousness in a year, or two, or five, or however long: Britney Spears. I am horrible at predicting these things, but I think it’s pretty safe to say M.I.A. will never be that famous--she doesn’t seem like she wants to, for one thing, and ever at her poppiest her appeal is basically aesthetic. Whether she becomes actually-famous or not on any level is something I have no way of predicting, but then again, that’s not my problem. It’s a strawman’s.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Now that Pazz & Jop is out, paradoxically enough, I feel fit to comment on my albums list. For the first time since I began voting, in 1998, I didn’t send in any comments. This is for much the same reason that I took down the 2005 keeping-track blog in October: things just seemed too dire to track that closely. I’ve said elsewhere that 2005 was a dispiriting year, and looking back I know I have no one to blame but myself. Metal’s in a renaissance stage, according to my metal friends, so much so that even I can see/hear it (there’s a reason Decibel is the practically the only U.S. music mag I actively look forward to reading these days, and it’s not only the writing)--except I never listen to the stuff, partly because I’m clueless without signposts and partly because even when I like it I find myself in admiration-not-love mode. (Many of my metal friends probably feel the same way about the dance stuff I enjoy, and that’s completely understandable.) The worst thing about 2005 as a pop year for me was that I found myself in that mode for things that, normally, I actively enjoy. Is that my fault or the music’s? Both, I’d say. Maybe if I were more confident in my jazz ears or metal ears I’d have felt differently--certainly jazz and techno were the two genres-as-genres I got the most pleasure from in 2005, and Rod Smith opened me up to Opeth and Pelican in a way that felt serious at the time but that I never really followed up on. Maybe if I had, my albums list would look different.

1. M.I.A., Arular (XL) I hear her father’s really a baker in Brighton. Don’t tell anybody, though.

2. The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (Frenchkiss) I hear he’s really Jewish. Don’t tell anybody, though.

3. The Mountain Goats, The Sunset Tree (4AD) I hear he was actually talking about himself on all the other albums and made this one up. Don’t tell anybody, though.

4. Kanye West, Late Registration (Roc-a-Fella) I wonder how long it took to light that Rolling Stone cover, not to mention which grade of plastic they used for the crown of thorns, and whether the spray-paint they also used for the crown of thorns washed off easily.

5. A Frames, Black Forest (Sub Pop) I didn’t think too much of this until I put it on after about two months away and it smacked me in the face. I could use more of that from records. Not people, please. (Thanks.)

6. DJ Koze, Kosi Comes Around (Kompakt) A perfect arc--like Triple R’s Friends, which is the only Kompakt album I like more than this one, it lopes so casually and masterfully from mini-epiphany to mini-epiphany you think it could just as easily drift away as stay grounded--until the next-to-last track. On Friends Dntel/Gibbard/Superpitcher stirred song into the stew as a peaky nightcap; here, Koze brings in “Brutalga Square” to unsettle everything. It works every bit as well--maybe more.

7. The Go-Betweens, Oceans Apart (Yep Roc) Because I am only fitfully familiar with their ’80s work, and because I liked Bright Yellow, Bright Orange a whole lot more than The Friends of Rachel Worth (and am not inordinately fond of either), this completely blindsided me; it may be the only album on this list I am underrating. Not only does every song finds its pocket immediately, every song has a pocket--in its tweedy, charcoal-grey way, the rhythm section owns this thing as much as the songwriting. And as someone who’s always privately caviled about their voices, I’ve never heard either man sound so warm, approachable, or comfortable in their own skin. Right, because I am only fitfully familiar with their ’80s work, I have no idea what I’m talking about--fair enough. But I’ll be amazed if they’ve made a better album than this one.

8. Crazy Frog Presents Crazy Hits (Universal/Next Plateau) No, I’m not kidding, but they are, which is why I love it. “They” meaning the (cough) “creative team” behind this ridiculous concept album about Europop, which because it’s about Europop does us the favor of not bothering to include any songs we haven’t already heard a zillion times. The exceptions are the “atmospheric” intro and the closing “Crazy Frog Sounds,” a duet for ringtone and echo chamber that (I said it before, I’ll say it again forever) would make the artist a Wire mag cover star if it lived in its mom’s basement. Those bookends basically make this a dead-perfect send-up of every other single-artist, non-breakbeat-oriented album in the Generation Ecstasy discography as well. Did you like LCD Soundsystem? Then you have no excuse for not “getting” this.

9. Kiki & Herb Will Die for You (Evolver) I hear they’re not really gay. Don’t tell anybody, though.

10. Run the Road (Vice) As some of you may have noticed, I switched this in for my originally-posted number-ten, DangerDoom, which I enjoy a lot but whose placement was the result of my committing a cardinal listmaking sin--settling for something you like but don’t love because you figure everyone else is going to as well so why fucking not? I’d overlooked this in part because I’d originally heard it in September 2004--I used three cuts on my 2004 year-end mixes, all 368 of them--and in part because around mid-year I stopped checking MP3 blogs and the like and started listening to more jazz and more techno, the two genres I liked the most this year, not that you can tell from this list. (That’s “genres,” not “albums.”) Plus if grime hasn’t exactly fell off (I sense it has but really have no idea), the sequel to this album sucks, which is close enough. Nevertheless Run the Road thrilled me at the time and while my opinions alter like anyone else’s I generally respect my earlier passions as much as my newer ones, even if I haven’t played the album in probably nine months.

It’ll be a few months before the actual anniversary date (mid-August), but I moved to Seattle for the first time in 1996, ten years ago. I was sick of Minneapolis in a nebulous sort of way, had no real idea what I was doing with my life. I was cooking in restaurants then, and left town after a rather convoluted work history; after a year and a half at Figlio, doing prep, appetizers, and pantry, I bounced around something like eight jobs in eight months before heading off. The trip was initially going to involve several people that were living in and around my friend Jeremy. I had moved into the house where he lived in February 1995, near MCAD (Minneapolis College of Art & Design), a big white structure with two floors and an attic loft that had a notorious reputation as a party house. In fact, the only time it wasn’t a party house was when I was living there, which figured. Jeremy got a house next door with a friend and I took over his room. Jeremy was, he explained, a little tired of living in a place where people came and went at all hours. But he also attracted it--Jeremy’s a tall, very quiet, mystically-inclined fellow with a kind of beatific calm around him who at the time seemed to know everyone in Minneapolis. (He’s in Seattle now as well--has been since 1999--but I’ve only seen him a couple times. He’s married and has a daughter. He emailed me a while back and I haven’t responded yet; I probably should. I’m terrible about that kind of thing; I never know what to say to old friends I haven’t seen in a long time, unable to figure out if I should tell them everything or if I should just leave it alone. Both options have their uses, but the latter tends to make me less friendly than I’d prefer.) When Jeremy and his roommate got into the house next door it soon took on the same aspect his prior residence had: Soon between four and six people were living there at any given time, rooming in walk-in closets or anterooms. The rent was something like $700 a month and splitting it further let everyone do basically nothing for a living and still survive. Jeremy took it all in with his usual eyebrow-cocked stoicism. I visited sometimes, a lot more so after I’d left the white party house to room with an interior designer at his condo closer to Uptown. I slept at Jeremy’s frequently, sometimes in the same bed if the couch was being crashed upon, which it often was.

Jeremy decorated minimally, thriftily, with scarved lampshades and incense being key components. Nothing was ever too brightly lit. His house was the first place I ever smoked weed, a couple weeks prior to my 21st birthday. It scared the shit out of me, especially when he kept changing the music to try to enhance its effects--whatever was playing, then “Dark Star” from Live/Dead, then Loveless, which felt like a black hole in that condition (I got over it), like that. It was very typical college-boho stuff, but I was uptight and intense, and his place and his presence was a marvelous corrective. Despite, or maybe because, I didn’t go to college, I dreamed fugitively of what I thought might be the intellectual life--intense late-night arguments and the like--and knew I was only a visitor to his skater/stoner friends’ milieu, where arguments tended not to be about the kinds of things I cared about. (I remember one guy getting mad that I called War Heroes a second-rate Hendrix album; it was his favorite.) There were pretensions galore there, of course--one guy in particular who looked like Art Garfunkel in a ratty sweater and rolled his own cigarettes spoke so haltingly that he sounded rehearsed, and I smelled a passive-aggressive rat, though at the time I was still too unsure of myself to just call him out and get it over with. (Another friend I met much later, who also knew the guy, informed me that he came out of his shell big-time in the later ’90s, after he’d discovered cocaine.)

Jeremy worshiped the Beats in a fairly obvious way that I was too self-conscious to let go and do myself. We got to talking one day about hitting the road, and on the spur of the moment we decided to do it. The idea was that several of the folks in the house would go in on a van and we’d drive to San Francisco. We began saving up. Naturally, I spent a bunch of what I had on records anyway.

One by one, the principals dropped out. It ended up being Jeremy, a woman he’d started dating, and myself. The van was cheap and broke down a lot, and so did relations between Jeremy and his girlfriend, not to mention between her and myself. As a couple, they encouraged each other’s passive-aggression and insularity, and as a disintegrating couple it was even worse. Not to mention that they played Dead Can Dance and Rusted Root in the van all the time, which made me want to kill myself. Nevertheless, some of the trip was rather wonderful. I wrote an enormous review of some James Brown reissues for Paul Williams’ Crawdaddy! newsletter (he’d brought it back a couple years earlier as a kind of homemade samizdat, and had printed a letter I’d sent him a year earlier; it was the first place outside of school publications for which I wrote about music or anything else) at Jeremy’s uncle’s place in South Dakota, on their computer in the basement, something like 20,000 words--very repetitive, which sort of fit the subject. I’d be embarrassed to see it today--I think this is the first time I’ve mentioned it anywhere online since going pro, as it were--but I did it in one sitting, which is how I thought everybody wrote everything back then; if they didn’t, I reasoned, it wasn’t “real.” (I had all kinds of made-up rules about writing that experience would dash to the rocks, starting with that one.) The Black Mountains at night were nice and properly spooky; so they were also in the day. Hanging out in the city below Mount Rushmore was breathtaking, a friendly small town set in the midst of endless acres of pine green; I still harbor fantasies of going there to write a book someday. Driving through the Colorado mountains with the sun setting behind the mountains in front of us, collectively holding our breath that the car would hitchlessly make it uphill, listening to L.A. Woman. Almost no record has ever sounded better in my life than that one did at that moment. Mostly, though, I was freaked out by the newness of the experience, as well as the obvious tension between the drivers (I still haven’t learned to drive), and acted whiny and uncooperative without meaning to. Upon mutual agreement, I parted company with them in Boulder and made my way to Seattle by Greyhound. When I arrived, my luggage was missing. I stayed at the Green Tortoise hostel, then located in Lower Queen Anne on 2nd and Roy, three blocks from where I live now; six to a room (three bunk beds) about the size of my bedroom in my current apartment. I’ve always turned in my sleep, and I’ve always kept very late hours; one night/morning I went to sleep to have my upper bunk rattled every time I shifted a hair. Then the guy, a mean alcoholic who lived at the hostel when he wasn’t in Alaska fishing, lean down and said, “If you move another muscle, I swear to God I’m going to beat the living shit out of you.” I silently gripped a loose plank above my mattress, intending to bash his face in if he came near me. A day later, I moved into a house near 100th and Aurora, with a short, black dominatrix who got us all kicked out after not paying the rent for the three months I lived there.

The reason I bring all this up is that I’m playing, for the first time in probably ten years, R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. It’s one of the albums I bought during the five months I was in Seattle, mid-August 1996 to mid-January 1997, and like the others--Prince’s Emancipation, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing . . . , Headz 2a & 2b, Nirvana’s From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, as well as several cassettes I’d brought with me that survived the luggage loss, it’s tied inextricably to that time and place. I liked New Adventures a lot at the time, and relistening I’m surprised at how strong some of it is; posterity hasn’t been kind to it, since it was the last album they made before Bill Berry left, at which point they more or less lost the rudder. It didn’t help that it’s by far their longest album--14 songs, 65-and-a-half minutes, most tracks five minutes or more, kind of a stylistic grab bag, mostly recorded on the Monster tour, first album of a huge-money record deal, the place where simmering backlash finally took root. I remember Jim DeRogatis’s Request feature, the first time I’d ever seen R.E.M. portrayed in an unflattering light in print; it impressed me a lot at the time, though I thought he was wrong about the album sucking.

When I got R.E.M.’s Warner Bros. expanded remasters last year, I had the opposite feeling--New Adventures was probably a lot worse than I’d known. Last week, I ripped it onto my hard drive and played “New Test Leper” loudly on headphones. In 1996 it sounded like the most comforting song in the world, and time has been wonderful to it--the delicate empathy in Stipe’s voice hasn’t gone anywhere, and if the drums shuffle more politely than I’d remembered they’re not really the point anyway. (Jeremy also loved it.) The others I played were “Departure,” whose playfulness surprised me; and “Leave,” which surprised me by not being as good as I’d remembered. (That siren noise is sort of a nuisance, isn’t it?) And “Electrolite,” the only song on here with any kind of post-album-cycle shelf life, and as perfect in a way as any of their singles, which isn’t the same as saying it’s great.

Playing it all while writing much of the above provided a few jolts, none of them too forbidding. (It’s R.E.M.; what did you expect?) “Undertow”’s “I’m drowning” refrain is a little fragmented but is still essentially as stirring as it’s meant to be. Actually, fragmentation is a theme here, as it was on Monster, as well as U2’s albums of the period--“information overload” is so mid-’90s a trope it’s almost adorable now. One of the tracks is even called (groan!) “So Fast, So Numb”--schoolmarmish warning about losing your emotions in the mediascape, ahoy! See also “The Wake Up Bomb” and, to a lesser extent, “E-Bow the Letter,” which is more about celebrity but is still one of the dumbest choices for a single ever made by any band in R.E.M.’s then-sales class.

Not that I’m offering ex-post facto advice here. But if the album sounds bloated and shaky, it’s still got a handful of songs I’m super happy to reacquaint myself with. My perfect EP condensation runs: “Departure,” “Leper,” “Undertow,” “Be Mine,” and “Electrolite.” “Be Mine” is as deliberately tossed off as anything on Monster, only it’s a straight-up power ballad, something R.E.M. were great at even if their fanbase does not wanna know.

The reason I came back, however hesitantly, to Adventures is that I’ve been pounding Automatic for the People these past couple weeks. Lots of smart people I know don’t like that one very much--too funereal, and it’s such a middlebrow choice for their best or second-best album that I can understand the impulse. But I’ve always adored the grace of the thing. At the time of its release, the whispers around the album were “AIDS elegy,” and there’s some of that for sure. (The Stipe-has-AIDS rumors are a different thing altogether.) What hits me most powerfully now, though, is something I couldn’t have heard when I first bought the album at 17: As much as anything, it’s an album about turning 30, about realizing your 20s are gone and won’t be coming back. It’s about facing middle age as much as it is about facing death. It’s about realizing the salad days were actually the salad days, because you could fuck up and it would fix itself eventually. No wonder they made Monster after this, and no wonder it sounded so awkward--older guys in youth drag. When U2 did it, they’d been so self-serious for so long it really was a change of pace and heart; R.E.M., however much Stipe’s mumbling had shrouded them in mystery, had been jumpier and lighter even when they were criticizing foreign policy. They didn’t have to get goofy because they were already fundamentally light.

Needless to say, I haven’t gone back to Monster yet. I’m still a little afraid of that one.