2009: Standing in the Cheese Line
Hot, Wet Slices of 2009
Ooooooooooh boy, 2009 was a HUM-DINGer if you like drama, depression, delusion, and deepening debt. I, a journalist (jjjjealous?), have endured what has become a standard story: I was laid off from my job in early 09, and so was my wife (and she worked for STARBUCKS; c'MON, man!). I had to move cross-country -- AGAIN -- and now I spend my days tending to my daughter and large record collection while my wife brings home the family bread.
This sounds like an ideal situation for a copy editor-cum-stay-at-home, sweats-wearing dude, but there are psychological aspects to getting laid off that just plain suck balls. For example, I haven't been able to find a good pair of all-day slippers that cushion my feet AND provide the necessary support. The worst part, however, is the suggestions from well-meaning colleagues: "Why don't you get an internship?" or "Have you considered a career change?" HAHA, yeah, that all makes a lot of sense, save one thing: I'M 30 WITH A FAMILY TO SUPPORT AND STUDENT LOANS IN THE THOUSANDS!
So yeah, it's taken every last bit of my patience not to scream at people who somehow think they have the answer to my problems. Then again, maybe this is my comeuppance for reeling off suggestions for musicians year after year ("Why not more noise?" "Why not more crescendo?" Why not more experimentation?" Yeesh); if so, I can handle it, especially when I have bushels-full of music to distract me from the weightier realities of the world. The year 2009 was a magnificent example of art transcending economy; vinyl sales are up 35% over 2008 (and December ain't over), album packaging is reaching new, often indulgent, highs (which I will get into in more detail below), and the prime artists of the era are ignoring the major-label free-fall, releasing great full-lengths that boost the long-player format.
Boy, am I a jumble of emotions or what? Please continue to read as I turn my confusing year into one hell of a rip-roaring Tiny Mix Tapes article.
- Next year, will you give me your heart?
I feel a bit strange doing this section again this year, because 2008's batch, well, mostly didn't rise. The Wavves record I was all snail-trailin' over for about a week didn't quite stay with me, and Veckatimest ... eh, it might just be this year's Funeral. The MBV "reunion" record? GOD, I SUCK. But I'm taking another crack at it, circa:
- If this new Avalanches record comes out -- a follow-up to 2000's Since I Left You -- it'll be a little like seeing a new My Bloody Valentine LP on the shelves (which is technically impossible, so FORGET IT), albeit for a totally different sort of group. Apparently they've been clearing samples for, oh, roughly a decade. A DECade. We'll see I guess.
- The Last Liars LP Licked/Lapped Balls; Lest they Lolligag, Let's Lust after Their Latest...
- New Panda Bear? Hell...
- If Midlake's The Courage of Others is half the album Bamnan and Slivercork was and twice the album Van Occupanther was, we should be all good.
- Vampire Weekend didn't write the rulebook on thieving "world"-based sounds (in fact, they're sorta just riding Paul Simon's [maybe even Ginger Baker's?] coattails on that one), so at least give this new one a chance. I must admit, though, I Ralph'd up "Horchata" fairly quickly.
- Clip'd Beaks, one of my favorite semi-knowns, are all set to break shit in 2010 with To Realize.
- Look, I don't want to get yr dander up, but THERE MIGHT BE A NEW WALKMEN ALBUM COMING OUT NEXT YEAR. HOLY GOD, CAN YOU EVEN CONTAIN YRSELF? (Well fck you, too).
- Ooh, James Mercer and DJ Danger Mouse as Broken Bells? Er, I'll pass... I'll be more likely to listen to this than watch his movie though.
- Locrian have a new LP dropping like doom-encrusted doo-doo in March and probably more in store for 2010. Keep abreast, my kittens.
- Record-setting (and -buying) sadness
I wanted to enjoy the gargantuan influx of Used LPs at shops and going-out-of-business sales in 2009, but it was tough; the source of all this gold-rush glee on my end is the recession, which has seen people selling off their prized records just to keep above-ground and the continued decrease in the sale of physical media. How can I feel good about finding four volumes of Killed by Death originals when I know some feeling-the-pinch dude sold it off when he probably didn't want to.
And yes, paying 25Â¢ per record at a "Closing for Good" sale rules, but it's just another sign of the times I'd rather ignore. As a man who grew up harboring dreams of opening my own record shop, the slow demise of local stores is depressing. Amid all this bad news is hope, however. Vinyl sales, as I mentioned above, increased by 35% over last year, and last year was a record-breaker for LPs (though statistics weren't compiled yearly for this sort of thing before the late 70s). So keep cranking out the vinyl and hope things keep improving; ditto for cassettes, a suddenly trendy, svelte, and relatively inexpensive option. As for non-handmade-CD-R CDs? I just don't know... or know if I care.
- More phrases we have to retire
Here we go again; if I read any of these phrases or what-not in a music-related review again I'm just going to cut my balls off and mail them to Eleanor Friedberger. You know, to surprise her.
- "Beneath their ___ tendencies, ____ are a Pop band." [Ex: Beneath their SHIT-core tendencies, Pussygutt are (!), if you stretch logic to the breaking point, a Pop band.]
- "killer" anything
- "_____ are like _____ on meth/speed/crank/barbituates/coke/weed/uppers/downers/laughers/yam-yams/etc." [sorry; it's been a good ride]
- the word "rave"
- Any variation of "hot licks"
- Any variation on "taking the piss" out of a genre, aesthetic
- "treacly"... only writers for The Believer use this word (literally 2-3 occurrences in the last issue), but it has to be retired for personal reasons I won't go into. I guess if you write for The Believer you can use it, but only if it's exclusive.
- "______ is a grower"... yeah, and so are lots of people in Cali.
- "molten" for describing riffs
- "____ will make your ears bleed." [If you flip it up... MAYbe, but straight-up this just doesn't cut it anymore.]
- "Got _____?" ... How is this device so common?
- Learning to enjoy concerts
A constant complaint I've heard over my decade-odd of reviewing music/concerts/etc. has been the lack of crowd activity at indie-rock shows. Everyone seems to think that, for a show to be Happenin', there has to be at least a dozen crank addicts up front dancing like Kansas City skouches (ska douches). Well, I'm hear to tell you that if you're paying that much attention to the people around you, you're probably missing It. "It" can be the subtlety of a Slint performance -- where no one moves a muscle -- or the enormity of a Sigur Rós show, where many are too spellbound to know what to do in the first place. "It" means losing yourself in the moment regardless of what the rest of the working-class slags around you are doing. Besides, as you complain about the lack of audience emotion, aren't you, yourself, failing to flail?
I can think of at least a dozen concerts I've been to where I never even KNEW what the rest of the crowd was doing; I was too busy letting the music do weird things to me, molesting the far corners of my body while my belly jiggled in approval. I remember going to a Chinese Stars/Some Girls/Daughters show in Portland and going so crazy I thought I popped a vein in my head like a twitchy porn star. I might had felt naked, open to disapproval had I been worried about the rest of the crowd, but I wasn't watching the audience because they had NOTHING TO DO with my enjoyment of the music. Think of it as a challenge. Go to the snobbiest, snarkiest, RICHest section of Seattle -- whooo boy! -- and get tickets to the trendiest show. Then, put on a too-small shirt that lets your pot-B HANG out, position yourself up front, and just go APESHIT like you were a 12-year-old boy at his first Mötley Crüe gig. I guarantee a better concert experience, and, what's more, you might convince others -- who are self-conscious just like you -- to get a li'l physical as well. It's a lot better than stewing in the back (Why aren't they dancing? If they danced maybe I could dance!) with judgement in yr heart.
- As music and art intersect
Recession? Tell that to the artists who have been ponying up major cash to dress their vinyl up with expensive flair the last few years. Tell that to Torche and Robotic Empire Records, whose 10-inch release of In Return packed a mouth-watering glossy gatefold design, different color vinyl for every so-many copies (I think every 50-to-100), an accompanying CD, and tickle-my-pits an INSERT! Truth be told, though, that's only one of many great new ideas presented lately in regard to combining fascinating sounds with equally invigorating visual art.
Some examples I personally came across this year were:
- Animal Collective's Animal Crack Box, a mega-blast of B-side material and tri-color graphics by album-art superstar Rob Carmichael... expensive and sold-out but almost worth it. If you thought the MPP design was cool, check this out.
- Brian Jonestown's Smoking Acid EP was easily the most curious, with a 180-gram 2XLP package, cool neon-green gatefold design with one pink LP, with music on it (and only two tracks on each side at that), and one fluorescent-green LP that, instead of music, has a pentagram on one side and weird Dr. Seuss-looking spots on the other. Jesus. The blue-yellow splatter of the "Talking Ice Cave" 12-inch ain't too shabby neither...
- John Wiese and Andy Ortmann put out a 12-inch last year that, along with extra-dark-blue vinyl (you can only see the blue if you hold the LP up to light), comes with a huge metal plate. It's heavy as SHIT.
- The 60s nuggets-style collection 2131 South Michigan Avenue, so stylish in its double-gatefold sexiness yet sensuous as well, with red, blue, and orange vinyl. Take one home with you today!
- A Lava Children LP on Graveface (A. Ranta hit it up HERE) with an insanely picturesque bubble-gum-pink/shale-green vinyl LP.
- Tank's The Filth Hounds of Hades: Dogs of War 1981-2002 LP set is six records on yellow wax, housed in an electric numbered box; NWOBHM? Uh huh.
- A collection of tracks from the 70s cartoon Signor Rossi (by Franco Godi, Enzo Jannacci, and Paolo Tomelleri), which I reviewed last year on CD, has a 12-inch vinyl pic-disc version that has to be seen to be believed.
- Indie rockers doing jump-kicks?
I remember my first exposure to indie rockers. I was working at a college-radio station and walking with a few colleagues after the university football game. We decided to play an impromptu game of tackle football... with no ball. Anyway, I ran at one of them, ready to do my best Dick Butkus impersonation, when I noticed that my friend was sort of going limp and falling before I even went in for the tackle! It was like tackling a Care Bear. Had this guy ever even played tackle football before? Geez! So at this point I realized how delicate most indie types are.
That all seemed to go out the window in 2009, as musicians suddenly seemed to get in meaningless fights based on off-the-cuff sound bytes/interview excerpts never meant to start trouble. First, there was the stupid Bonnie "Prince" Billy interview: BpB mentioned at one point that he didn't like the way Wes Anderson placed songs in movies like The Life Aquatic and Rushmore, saying the director didn't account for mood or tone (or some shit; who cares). This would have been ignored in any other era, but then a few sites decided they had a full-out BRAWL on their hands. "BONNIE 'PRINCE' BILLY HAS BEEF WITH WES ANDERSON, APPARENTLY," one headline read. Now, I don't know what the definition of "beef" is, but I don't think a random comment about soundtrack selection befits the term. Are we supposed to believe these two are going to dip their fists in glue -- then broken glass -- and go at it in a deserted New York alleyway?
Then there was the Wavves/Black Lips fiasco. It started with Jared Swilley, the bassist from The Black Lips, saying Wavves' Nathan Williams was acting like a baby (translation: jealousy, though I love The Black Lips) and couldn't handle his fame. I don't even know why Jared's comments passed as News, but it did, and it led to a confrontation at a club weeks later, wherein someone surely snapped into a Slim Jim. During this altercation, Jared used the word "faggot" several times to describe N. Williams (so now it's okay to use hateful words like "faggot" in the indie scene? Am I on the set of Reservoir Dogs? Are we joking about Mr. Pink?), and it all ended in someone reportedly getting roughed-up, a bunch of people getting miffed, and even more readers being subjected to what amounts to tabloid-style, celebrity-bating CRAP. If I could describe the whole Wavves saga in one word, it would be "Clownshoes."
In between all this, somewhere there was even a rant from Mr. Jolly himself, Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, accusing members of The Arcade Fire of "treating people like shit." Now I really, really hate what the whole Arcade Fire thing has become (if Funeral makes your decade list you SUCK), but at least they took the high road when Coyne lashed out, leading him to issue a half-apology. My thought is, "Why not just keep your fucking mouth shut in the first place?"
The latest in the "whatchoo lookin' at BITCH" indie-rock series of battle royales concerns Matthew Friedberger, a band that HASN'T EVEN RESPONDED to any of his taunts (or confused rants; and I thought I wrote all wacky-like), and Beck, who might have. Whatever. The best part is, Radiohead aren't even dignifying the whole thing, treating it as the dick-in-a-box hoodwink it is, refusing to get involved in conflicts cooked up by newswriters in an Entertainment Weekly frenzy.
And so I present a question: Is the indie landscape becoming like the hardcore scene of the early 80s, where a bunch of chauvinist jocks invaded Minor Threat shows and forced the meek "pussies" who actually enjoyed the music to start a new movement?
All this SHIT -- which includes two people punching Jay Reatard for no apparent reason -- amounts to a decision we're all going to have to make: We can keep on clicking on these stories and telling their auditors we enjoy the sensationalism, or we can read the Good Stuff, the music criticism we've come to love and expect from our favorite sites. The choice is yours; I can't deny I'm curious to see if a skirmish explodes between Frank Black and Green Gartside over a comment Black made about the Dexy's Midnight Runners-style hat Gartside used to wear in the '80s. IT'S ONNNN, BITCHES!!!
- Keeping it real as a reviewer
There are so many pitfalls to reviewing music, many of them sprouting up over the last few years, that I feel I must make a list of sanity-keeping tools for all those confused audio-minded souls out there:
- First off, get comfortable with downloading. Thaaaaaaaat's it, it's like a hot tub... eeeeaaaase yourself in. The reason I say this is because many record labels -- especially the bigger boats -- are refusing to send out promos until after their product is released in stores. Which means you miss deadline (say, on the digital release of Fall Be Kind) and write about an album after umpteen sites have already anointed it the 22nd best album of the millennium; no good.
- Don't be afraid to sit around in silence every once in awhile. With so many assignments on tap, it's tough to untangle one's mind from the thicket of audio distractions, but it's essential that you listen to Nothing every so often so you can remember what Nothing sounds like, lest you become the equivalent of a hermit-like creature who's never seen the sun because, if you did gaze upward, the mother star would crack your eyeballs like cheap pipe glass from India.
- Press releases: Extract the facts, then toss. I can't emphasize the importance of this enough. Sure, you'll grab a few important quotable-notables from them, but allow them to steer your content at all and you quickly become an in-joke; believe it or not, bands know when you copy the influences listed on their one-sheet. In fact, they mention it to me in interviews all the time. It gives them a solid reason to dismiss a critical review, whether reasonably delivered or not, so don't let them off the hook!
- Get organized. As a man with a two-year-old daughter -- one with uncanny climbing skills -- I've had to get my ducks in a line in more ways than one. Hell, I often have to weigh whether I have the time to take a shit (I often don't). So secure yourself a desk in the corner of your house where you can keep yr piles of promos -- and sure, if you're going to keep press releases, file them -- and work without distraction.
- Learn to deal with promoters. If you can't look someone in the eye and tell them their or their client's music is more painful than tractor-rape, you shouldn't be reviewing music because you'll like EVERYTHING. Every album you evaluate will suddenly be best-of-the-year material; you'll start living in a LAND OF MAKE BELIEVE, with elves and pixies and stop signs made of red-rope licorice; somehow, you'll find a way to like that funk-rock band from Idaho with the paraplegic drummer. It's not pretty (read any number of blissed-out, happy-happy-joy music blogs for an example of this ugly trend).
- Don't be... evil?
I've been thinking about this a lot: The old phrase "Don't be a hero"? It's starting to catch on, and in a bigger way than we ever anticipated. Newspaper work might have soured me a bit, but I tell you, I have laid out stories as troubling as a positive AIDS test. I'm talking about a two-year-old girl walking around in traffic for 20 minutes before someone with a soul gets out of her/his car and asks where her parents are; turns out the girl had been raped. By her two older brothers. My point is, Americans have been losing their humanity for a long time now. As cliché as it sounds, the poor are getting poorer, the super-rich are just-plain LAUGHing at the rest of us, and everyone in between is trying so hard not to stand out they can't react to anything that isn't an MSN headline story about getting your daffodils their yellowest (of course, an employee at one of the Big 2 "rock" magazines told me their biggest priority for the future is to appeal to people who read these very MSN articles... mostly 50-year-old women. Is that some scary shit or what?). Hence the stay-in-your-car-until-you-see-brains-splattered-on-the-road mentality.
I've also met too many people who just have NO ONE. No family, no money, no pot (for pissing in), no pot (for smoking, if they want to), no friends, no nothing... and the recession is pushing these people further into the margins. I now leave you with a statement a shopping-cart organizer for Wal-Mart said to me early in the cold grips of 2009. I was holding my daughter, Penny, and walking in (just to buy CD-Rs, I SWEAR) when he strode parallel to us. Penny smiled at him and I said, "Hey, she likes you!"
His reply? "I'm glad somebody likes me in this world." As he shuffled off to perform the thankless task of linking more carts together, I vowed not to think too obsessively about all the people out there who can relate to that statement, and failed. How about you? My point is, if you know someone who needs a friend, a ride, a loan, a referral, advice, to be set up on a blind date, tips on how to get a woman/man, help with a tire change, a few bucks for medication, or a "word put in," do the right thing. It's too cold to hold out on those you love and those you don't love yet but may someday.
Happy holidays everyone, sniffle!!!
[Illustration: Carolina Purdum]
- Click here to return to our 2009 year-end image map.