August 28, 2009

bankrupt on selling

You're looking at a promo shot for Nike's new Sup Pop sneakers: the perfect shoe for indie kids and alt-rock drop-outs. Along with the logo of a shattering disc (discussed briefly in my last post) that Pitchfork has been using to encapsulate the evolution of popular music during the first decade of the 2000s, I think this Nike ad pretty much sums up the rest: the all too common passage of popular indie labels (and their bands) through a sort of corporate baptism and on to mass acceptance. The unprecedented breakthroughs of bands like Modest Mouse, The Shins, Death Cab for Cutie and the Arcade Fire helped carve out an indie niche that major labels have recognized as one of the most profitable (i.e. one of the few growing) domains in popular music. Again and again, we've had our anti-corporate indie ideals smashed by car ads (Modest Mouse), beer promos (the Dodos) and major motion picture soundtracks (let's just call it "the Juno factor"). But it would be ludicris to associate this trend of cooperation with this decade alone. The Sub Pop sneakers remind us that this is nothing new. No strangers to corporate partnership, Sonic Youth have recently been turning tricks for Starbucks, while M. I. A. and members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have peddled footwear for Converse and Adidas. Bands and brands have always been difficult to disambiguate and the past decade brought lo-fi rebellion home at a scale few could have predicted.

August 18, 2009

old media nostalgia

A couple months ago, I was walking down an back alley in Wolseley and something familiar caught my eye. Sitting atop a mound of garbage was the video companion to 1997's What's Up Matador?, a compilation of various artists on Matador Records during the mid 90s. A number of years earlier I bought the compilation on cd and, among standard favourites like Cat Power, Spoon, Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Liz Phair (well, pre-Space Egg) found some new/old bands that I took to right away (Helium, Chavez, etc.). Last weekend, I finally got a chance to watch the video on an old VCR. It all looks incredibly dated: the grainy resolution, the washed out images, the bold, over-the-top aesthetic, the heavy-handed video concepts, the leering irony/sarcasm, the concsious attempts to produce a hit. What's Up Matador? made me a bit nostalgic for indie rock before "indie rock" became a mainstream genre: before the internet took hold, before small record companies started withering away. Even fifteen years ago, independent music meant something else: it's not that it was more purely independent or more DIY (probably less, actually); rather, it was thought about very differently. It's been fascinating to watch this shift in popular culture take place over the better part of my adolescence.

I was reminded of this again when I visited Pitchfork yesterday and noticed that the website had halted regular reviews to accommodate for the first of many lists and features that will help conclude the past decade in music. P2K: The Decade in Music begins with the Top 500 Tracks of the 2000s, which is a broad smattering of singles with a handful predictably obsure songs thrown into the mix to remind amateurs like me that they're the experts. Above the title is the image of a shattered compact disc. We've come through a period of transition and there's no going back - unless its vinyl we're talking about. The cd encapsulates the best and worst aspects of the music industry through the 90s: overpriced, cheaply made, overproduced, soon-to-be-out-dated pieces of plastic. It's really surprising they lasted as long as they did. Remember mini-discs? In retrospect it seems like we were always trying to anticipate the next medium and now, all of a sudden, here we are with ipods and illegal downloads; here we are with less centralization and further atomization (we all know albums will soon be a thing of the past), which all serves to provide even more consumer information to the entertainment industry.

I've always bought cds, and I have over 350 sitting in my bedroom - when I'm moving in two weeks, 75% of my packing will be takien up by cds, lps, and books. Things used to be relatively finite, but we've fallen prey to the illusion that information is infinitely accessible, infinitely available, and can be infinitely reproduced. Digital media may be practical, but just think how empty our rooms would be had we not been such massive consumers during the 90s and 2000s.

Here's an old favorite, featured on What's Up Matador? (VHS), by Yo La Tengo from their (best) album, 1993's Painful.

August 14, 2009

wall of ice: a new radiohead EP on the way?

***More sketchy news re: Radiohead via the Quietus:

"This week the world has been a-flutter with the news that Radiohead might be releasing new material on Monday, August 17 after a new song seemed to appear online.

"Now, eagle-eyed observers have noticed that elements of the file and code attached to the song featured the words "wall" and "of" and "ice", and that indeed the combination of the three appeared in a mysterious poem that accomanpanied the track on back-of-the-internet-lorry site You can find all the Wall of Ice stuff hidden in the ASCII code here.

"If you therefore assume that Radiohead follow the same model as they did with In Rainbows – ie they create a website based on the title of the release – you get And that leads straight to the W. A. S. T. E. Shop. In other words, it looks very much like the rumours are true: there’s an EP coming with that title and Radiohead’s site is all set up to receive the orders via that site." Read the full article.

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This song has been circulating in the sort of frenzy you'd expect when something from Radiohead leaks. "These Are My Twisted Words" may not get a proper release (it could be Radiohead's contribution to the Twilight sequel's soundtrack; and Thom Yorke recently suggested, in an interview with The Believer, that a new LP won't be coming any time soon, but he has a habit of saying one thing and doing the opposite), but it's a damn fine song: dark, atmospheric, but mysteriously upbeat. It seems to me that "...Twisted Words" would have been quite at home on the criminally underrated b-side collection included with the deluxe edition of In Rainbows. Shame the disc didn't get a wider release.

August 13, 2009

fancy footwork

...more Stylus reviews by yours truly:
...and my favourite summer album of 2009 (so far):
  • Person to Person - Foreign Born (out now on Secretly Canadian)
Below this paragraph I've posted the video for "Winter Games," Person to Person's most accessible and anthemic number, which falls somewhere in between the Arcade Fire, the Walkmen and Vampire Weekend, where new wave bass lines meet third wave rhythm. On this track, as with most of Person to Person, a diverse smattering of percussion nearly overtakes the rest of the song (like a tropical storm, whose waves threaten to capsize your rich friend's yacht); the propulsion it provides keeps these familiar melodies from turning into lullabies. "Winter Games" is almost too carefree, too easy, which in my mind is its greatest strength. The descending chorus is so relaxing and so natural that it almost whitewashes a summer that's been far from ideal: like those few pristine moments of sunshine we sampled back in July can last forever. Instead, we've rarely had a decent stretch without rain, and its been so muggy out that my bikeride to work leaves me soaked with sweat from head to toe. Winter hasn't felt nearly as distant as it should.

August 11, 2009

who's in control?

The new issue of Stylus is out, which means I've got a few things currently in print: various reviews, an interview with Del Barber and a live review of Sunset Rubdown. And be sure not to miss an interview with The Other Brothers.

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What is going on in British politics? I don't pretend know, but I can't help being interested. After seeing mention of Radical Orthodoxy on Infinite Thought, I was led to a helpful (and timely) post at An Und Fur Sich, which led me to an article by Philip Blond in the Guardian (where he touts the new "progressive" conservatism, or "red Toryism," which purports to rescue the legacy of conservative Christian intellectuals like John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle and G.K. Chesterton from the violent/embarrassing conservatism of Thatcherism). Those postmodern theologians sure have a thing for paradoxically titled movements. But I should mention that this pairing isn't a new idea, but has in fact been done to death. Canada too had (and our provincial government still has) a "Progressive Conservative" party, which finally relapsed and went back to being the Conservative party. Then again, that's just coincidence. Canadian politics is another matter entirely.

Eventually I landed up at the University of Nottingham's Centre for Theology and Philosophy, where the campaign seems to be in full swing. Even John Milbank has been showing his support, claiming that the vision of Radical Orthodoxy is taking hold, and public life is being reclaimed. This is "its entry upon the political stage." The idea, that we can avoid this political dichotomy between right and left, by returning to a premodern understanding of social life, where we'll bring about "a new radical communitarian ground against the liberalism of both left and right" sounds all too familiar and altogether simplistic. What John Milbank (who appears to be spending far too much time with Zizek) wants is another Christendom (but this time more fully global - which shouldn't be to hard thanks to the headway made by global capitalism) , and everyone else should too or else they've fallen into a series of necessary lapses: "modernity is liberalism, liberalism is capitalism...and capitalism is atheism and nihilism." That was quick wasn't it?

And then, to my astonishment, Milbank continues with this statement:
The “other religions” thing in the end won’t matter. The world as a whole is rapidly Christianizing, and even in Islamic countries like Bangladesh Muslims are finding their own specific and valuably Islamic way to Christ in notably increasing numbers. As Paul Claudel realised in Le Soulier de Satin, the meaning of globalisation is a shift to the primacy of the sea, la mer tout entière, and so figurally of baptism and personal relationship, however terrestrially sundered. The evil disasters of colonialism can only be redeemed when they are seen as perverse and yet providential ways to the further proclamation of Christian universalism.

Now, I have no problem believing this came from Milbank's mouth, and maybe I'm too conditioned by neoliberalism, but I find the arrogance and presumption of this statement troubling. The sort of authority Milbank is here touting seems Constantinian in all the wrong ways. I don't doubt Blond is far off. What a sorry mess this is going to be.

August 4, 2009

released and relegated

How some artists can be so prolific I'll never know. Last year, England's Wild Beasts released their debut, Limbo, Panto, which I had the priviledge of reviewing for Stylus (and quickly added to my list of 2008's best). I quickly grew attached to the verbose idiosyncrasies of Hayden Thorpe's lyrics, not to mention the strange, carnivalesque quality of the band's sound. Not a year later, the same band has released their follow-up (no word yet when it will hit North America), Two Dancers, which already boasts a video for its lead single, "Hooting and Howling." Judging from the first review I've read, courtesy of The Quietus, Wild Beasts have no problem with consistency and could (should) find a place beside more complex, (and recently) well-lauded North American acts like the Dirty Projectors and Sunset Rubdown.

Another album released today produces the opposite effect in my gut. Modest Mouse were witho
ut a doubt one of the most important bands of my adolescence. I think it's also safe to say that The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon and Antarctica are two of the best -and perhaps the most vital- albums of the last 15 years. They are sonically and lyrically complex, darkly original and suprisingly poignant, both for their cultural commentary and their philosophical outlook. So it's with a whole heap of dread that I turn to the current manifestation of Modest Mouse. 2003's Good News For People Who Love Bad News was definitely not a bad album, but it represented a shift for the band (in terms of popularity, production, content, and Brock's new sobreity). This shift was fully realized with 2007's We Were Dead..., an unforgiveably bad album that, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get behind. Was Johnny Marr really necessary? I guess when the songs can't stand on their own, you need some way to dress them up. Anyway, the point of all this is to give some context for the band's new EP, No One's First And You're Last, which I can't help but see as Modest Mouse's tombstone (don't get the wrong idea -I'm sure there'll be more of them). The EP collects leftover material from the band's last two albums -which means even more poor wordplay, more overdone guitarwork, and a bunch of half-baked songs ("Satellite Skin," "Autumn Beds," and "Whale Song" are examples of the band at its most creatively tapped). "I've Got it All (Most)" al(most) tunes into the Modest Mouse I remember, while the bloated "King Rat" sounds as though it came from the Good News... era, and for that reason alone soars above the rest of this EP. And yes, the video is directed by the late Heath Ledger. Too bad it's not very good.