I Can’t Review Digital Files
I guess there’s no need to express my distaste for cold, cyber-whatever digital files when it comes to effectively reviewing music, but since a lot of promo people and labels think I’m actually going to pay attention to the SoundCloud files they “sent” me (don’t see a return address on these bitches, though), I figured I might as well sound off on the topic once again.
The real, inherent question here is, “What do you want me to do with these?”
Is it a dumb question? Sure! But think about it: As a gumshoe old enough to remember the old days (I’ve even pasted an ad or two), I don’t understand how a grouping of files is supposed to compare with 12X12 art, inserts, the cool comfort and waxy shine of vinyl, the Teen Wolf-era feel of a good cassette, the subtle charm of 3-inch CDs (a definite favorite even though I’ve lost the ability to play the damn things), and, jesus I never thought I’d go this far, the convenience of CDs.
Maybe if I reviewed music at the gym, digital files would be nice because I could fuck-load them to my SlyPod.
Maybe if I reviewed music at the gym, digital files would be nice because I could fuck-load them to my SlyPod; maybe if I reviewed music at work, I would be overjoyed to sift through a shit-ton of SoundCloud jams; maybe if I reviewed music while riding my bike, shopping for groceries, taking a truck-sized dump, or while reviewing other music, I would be overjoyed by the convenience of random, impersonal files that can be sent to a zillion shitty blogs in a book-‘em-Dano-second. But I don’t, and I’m not.
Sometimes the extra effort really matters. Can you kids tell me, with a straight face, that you think I should ignore that insanely elaborate LP-plus-picture-book on purple vinyl (I’m referring to a real record by Wreck Of The Zephyr here, mind you) I got last week in favor of the stretch of ass-slurry your band lazily burned to iPad via GarageBand and emailed to thousands of inboxes via Banter Media for a small fee of $300 a month? Is that even a serious question?
If you wonder why the old-schoolers prefer the former to the latter, you’re most likely missing the point altogether. You see, we don’t want things to be inconvenient for you; we just find that those who take the time to properly document their audio explorations tend to put a similar level of care and forethought into crafting their music. This doesn’t always hold true — in fact, it might be like 51% to 49% — but the evidence doesn’t lie. I’ve literally never made an exciting discovery via an attachment to an email. Conversely, I’m encouraged and enlivened by physical media almost every day — the shapes, smells, feel, and… physical-ness of vinyl keeping my days packed with feverish “yes, I’m still ALIVE” reviews on Tiny Mix Tapes, obligatory blog posts and, a few times a year, my column in Signal To Noise. And so I ask you, physical-media naysayer: What say you? That’s what I thought.
Strange-Fun Things I’ve Received in Music Promo Packages Over the Years
• A small, keychain-sized rubber chicken
• a Squirrel Nut Zipper (the candy, not the band)
• a globe-like sphere with a baby-doll leg protruding from each side and a crude vagina carved into its center (in which a cassette-tape rests)
• a pair of candy lips
• a decoder ring
• a daily calendar-type notepad that says “Things to do: 1. Call BIJOU for Gay Video; 2. (written in pen) Listen to E. Danzigr
— one of those little plastic army-men guys with a parachute attached; can’t remember where I remember these things from (cereal box? A Team action figures?) and it’s killing me
• guitar pick
• a small, crystal-like rock tied to a cassette tape wrap-around
• a tiny foldout photo thingie with an image of a grainy skeleton and two paper-bag-headed subjects inside (I’ll go ahead and spill the beans on this one: it was NY artist Stephen Sphera, sending a 3-inch on Parvo Art)
• Dum-Dums, lots of Dum-Dums
• $50,000 cash, with the understanding I’d provide a favorable review (GOTcha)
Snapshots from the edge of reason
I was watching One Hour Photo, the film — the dark, dark, saddening film — and Robin Williams’ character says at one point that snapshots are a way for people to fight the slow march of time, as if to say, “I was here.” And I realized this is how I view music: It’s my fight against the agonizing rot time visits upon my brain and body with each new year. It’s my tangible proof I was alive at so-and-so place and so-and-so time, and I cling to it weakly (and weekly) in the corner like a sniveling rich kid hoarding a stash of fine linens. I’m sad to say this, but I just might be losing the battle.
I’ve been playing “music detective” for more than 10 years now, and in the course of my studies, I’ve often neglected to do maintenance on the connections I’ve already made with music.
The reason I’m coming up short in this lifelong skirmish has a lot to do with my TMT name: Gumshoe. You see, (in my own mind, at least) I’ve been playing “music detective” for more than 10 years now, and in the course of my studies, I’ve often neglected to do maintenance on the connections I’ve already made with music. In hopes of finding oblique audio, I’ve forgotten warm familiarity is one of the most exciting things about music in the first place. Not only that, but I find a lot of the stuff my brain despises is loved and craved, with insane devotion, by my heart.
What can I do when certain audio artifacts that make the least logical sense somehow, someway, make a connection with me and please me much more than most of the records I appreciate through a more academic lens? As a reviewer, I’m horrified by this trend, but there’s a wild card here: The music my heart likes also tends to be music other humans — more than five in every state — enjoy. So it helps me connect with the other humans, something I seem to get worse at every year.
What Your Indie Rock Friends Hear
I’ve had a lot of people tell me they don’t understand a single word of my reviews/etc. And if they don’t say anything about it — and they’re friends with me on Facebook or in life — it’s even worse because they think I’m a dickhole for using an alias, referring to myself in the third person, and writing in a style that doesn’t exactly smack of mature adulthood. (I mean, of course I know deep-down I’m a king among men, but that’s not the point.) There are other pitfalls; you have to be careful with your casual-listening friends. Below is a collection of things you could say (not meaning any offense) and effectively turn your friend into a bitter buffalo and you into, well, a pedantic asshole.
You: “It’s an acquired taste.”
translation: “I’ve dulled my sense to the point where this sounds acceptable.”
You: “Well, no, my blog hasn’t made money yet.”
translation: “I’m still pretending my blog might someday make money.”
You: “You probably wouldn’t like it.”
translation: “I’m better than you.”
You: “Hey you HAVE to check this band out!”
translation: “I know your taste in music better than you do.”
You: “It’s like these guys have a direct line to my brain.”
translation: “I’m too stoned to know what’s good.”
Ye—… Yeah, you got me there
After resisting the idea for years, I realize now that it’s true: There are too many good bands out there; there’s no point in trashing the several-million disposable outfits popping up every day when there’s such grandeur afoot everywhere I seem to point my ear of ears. And that sucks, because I think people need to know when something blows. Who doesn’t want to avoid an LP that just doesn’t feel right, like one of those latter-day Violent Femmes records or an older record you pay $20 for then see at an antique shop for .99 sizzle? (For example, I paid $50 for a Tonto’s Expanding Head Band record last year, only to realize I had the exact same one, just with a different jacket.)
I remember absolutely TRASHING an Unwed Sailor album years ago and Mr P, bless his soul, totally just let me finish like a Mississippi leg hound because he respects his writers’ opinions. But he did say something like, “Well, it’s not like they’re super big-time. I probably wouldn’t have been so harsh.” Something along those lines. And though in retrospect that makes a lot of sense to me, at the time I was dead-set on taming the flames of what I felt was an overflowing post-rock cauldron. What’s funny to me now is how little genres really matter when all is said and done. People say they’re sick of post-rock, then they have a spontaneous orgasm when they realize the next Explosions In The Sky record is out. It’s all about skimming the top anyway. There are legions of fertile scenes out there, but it’s more important to extract the most inspirational material than to try and know about every band that sounds vaguely like Ducktails.
My point (still) being, I just don’t have time to listen to the shitty stuff anymore.
Make-Believe Indie-Rock-Related Christmas Songs Someone Should Write
“We Three Kinks”
“Oh Holy Nite Jewel” (“Oh Holy Fuck” also works)
“Once In Royal David Pajo’s City”
“Racebannon the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
“Sun Araw is Coming to Town”
“All I Want for Christmas is Ulaan Khol”
“I’ll Be Chrome for Christmas”
“Little Joe Strummer Boy”
“Froberg the Snowman”
“(Have a) Flogging Molly Christmas”
“Johnny Winter Wonderland”
Please, no more
NO MORE commercials depicting a band of any kind. (If I had the chance, I would grab the bespectacled, redhead lead singer from the “Free Credit Report” spots and pone him on the curb, Ed Norton-in-American History X-style. It still wouldn’t be enough to offset the damage.)
NO MORE music festivals with promotional tie-ins. (“Dude just stopped by the BP stage and got LUBED! Then I breezed by the Summer’s Eve showcase — you guessed it; I got DOUCHE’d! — and dropped in on the Lloyd’s Barbecue tent for a sloppy group sandwich. I’m bushed!”)
NO MORE bands/record shops/record labels/online distros/etc. named directly after obscure musicians. (Try working your whole life to move things forward, only to watch a fucking emo band or record label turn your name into something you never had anything to do with.)
NO MORE walking around concerts/festivals/events with a constant frown. (If you hate music so much, and it doesn’t move you AT ALL, why are you here?)
NO MORE technology-savvy-over-well-honed-skill. (If you’re going to get onstage looking like you’ve never slept with another human, at least get onstage looking like you spent all those hours alone geeking out on guitar, learning how to rock the drums, or working it out on that mutha-truckin’ oboe.)
NO MORE movies depicting poor-but-cool, bearded, post-hippy, intellectually enlightened-but-confused-by-the-contours-of-life people wearing blue indie-rock hoodies. (Lord knows how/why they live in fabulous loft apartments, don’t seem to have to work, and never get enough camera time because the movie’s trying to tell the story of 39 of them.)
NO MORE sites that say “The ONLY _____ site.” (Not only are you not the ONLY ____ site, you’re not even the only _____ site to say “The ONLY ____ site.” Get over yoursite.)
NO MORE synths. (Oh, who am I kidding? I love you Synthie.)
One for the Underdogs
I am predisposed to vote for the underdog, and it all started with Jane Child. I remember thinking she was going to be HUGE. She had it all — a harried, squalking voice that sounded like shit, the best cheesedick synths you could get at the time, a catchy lead single (“I Don’t Wanna Fall in Love”), a propensity for strange keyboard solos, a nose-ring-chain-thingie, spiked hair, and a generally aloof look that was the diametric opposite of sexy, and, most important of all, you couldn’t tell if she liked dudes or chicks. I was sure she was going to be the next Madonna, and it didn’t really matter that the music wasn’t up my alley. It seemed… different, underdog-ish.
Then it became obvious she was a one-hit-wonder-IF-THAT, a record-label experiment concocted more for their entertainment than any notion of it actually catching on in any big way. In retrospect it seems obvious to me. She is 100% asexual — I mentioned before that you couldn’t tell whether she liked chicks or dudes, but it’s beyond that: you can’t tell if she likes HUMANS. (Remember when Homer said, “I don’t know, you’d have to be pretty desperate to do it with a robot”?) And in her music video, she doesn’t appear with another human. No dudes. No chicks. She doesn’t even glance at anyone, save a presumably homeless man standing there as she does one of her ubiquitous sidewalk strolls.
And I’ve got to return to her look. I mean, it’s simply hideous, but fascinatingly so. Steroid-spiked hair with partially shaved sides, long in the back and braided; not one but TWO nose chains; skinny, bird-faced features that can only mean she is of the dreaded Canadian persuasion; outfits of all-black, like she’s in the goddamn matrix; flowing, shin-low overcoats that anticipate the Trenchcoat Mafia and just look creepy; more rings on her fingers and bracelets on her hands than a fortune teller; and, to top it all off, in the video she walks around city streets at night and preposterously starts dancing a strange, spastic freak-dance at random times. It’s fucking crazy.
Once I realized she’d never, ever make it big in the Madonna sense — and that the old, smelly guys in Damn Yankees, and Madonna, not to mention, were already that big twice-over — I became obsessed with the idea of a truly unlovable character breaking through. (Which brings me to an interesting question: Did Animal Collective break through? I mean, really, truly break through? I feel I’m too detached from such things to know, for sure.) Perhaps the skeleton of that old obsession is at the root of my willingness to wind through tape after tape looking for something messy and downer, but in just the right way, in such a way as to grab music history by the flanks and HOG IT OUT like a good ol’ boy. (Sorry for the crudity, I’ve had a rough week.) And so I thank you Jane Child, for being just twisted enough to have a hand in the development of a dedicated spazz-monger.
Twitter Sucks, Of Course
So, after reading the header, you’re probably waiting for me to bitch about Twitter. “Old guy bitches about Twitter, can’t find his Slanted and Enchanted t-shirt, and stepped on his falsies,” right?
And as much as it pains me to play right into your assumptions, I’ll be double-dipped in buffalo SHIT if you’re not right on the money. I think Twitter is the ultimate insult to a generation (and coming generations) that thinks MP3s are better than 7-inches, video clips are better than films, YouPorn is better than real sex (they might have something on this one), text messages are better than conversations, and Facebook pages are better than actual lives. What’s even worse, however, is that it’s helped us all forget that the world needs good, sound information rather than bite-sized nuggest of thought-jerky.
For example, I work at a newspaper (buy one today!), sometimes on the Sports Desk, and I’ve found that many columnists/anchors/etc. have taken to referring to tweets instead of actually interviewing players and coaches. Not only that, but players get in trouble every day for a stupid-ass remark or gesture they funneled through the soft, warm meat curtain that is Twitter. How does this all affect music and Tiny Mix Tapes-related matters? I’ll tell you how: For one, musicians are getting in fights. As if audio artists needed another outlet (remember when music alone passed for a serviceable outlet?) to show how terminally ill they are, now we get these freaks insulting each other on the web like Wavves are on tour in Europe again or something. And why does it matter if Justin Vernon throws out a remark about not caring whether he wins a Grammy? And why is it news when a random band no one has heard from in years sets Vernon “straight” by saying he’s a sellout? None of this shit matters unless it’s elevated into public discourse by a filthy middleman with no thought for human emotion or relevance.
And what’s worse than reading a weird, discomfiting tweet and then seeing a half-assed apology make the rounds a few minutes/hours/days/weeks later? Can’t these people just shut the fuck up in the first place? Where’s the “off” switch on Wayne Coyne’s huge fucking YAPPer? It was only inevitable that some douche champion would start reviewing records through Twitter, and that’s the most serious crime of all. In a link-an-MP3-then-watch-the-hits-collect indie-rock world, do we need more people taking shortcuts to pageviews? I’ll let you collect your thoughts before you answer.
Life as a niche music writer — it’s okay, I know; I know I am — is confusing, especially because I’ve had a lot more success online than in print. The people who read my stuff span the globe, and that’s awesome, but it’s tough to know if one’s Keeping It Real from assignment to assignment. When I used to write shitty pieces for weeklies in Spokane, WA, I knew for a fact less eyeballs were taking in my dashing attempts at spiritual mind-FUK. But because Spocaine was so incestuous, I got feedback constantly, whether it be letters to the editor, acquaintances, or bands angry that I slammed their bitchin’ Nickelback cover band (one of them was called, I shit you not, Black Tooth Grin).
There was a lot more communication and even some near-death situations. Although I tend to get comfortable in my isolated cocoon, I feel we’re only scraping the surface of the possibilities. There must be a superior way to reach out to, well, YOU, and for YOU to reach out to us, the wizards behind the curtain. We should know each other, right? We should all be raging and putting on shows and experiencing community on a whole new level. Is this, by chance, already happening and I don’t know it? (That would be SO LIKE you!) I think we can do better.
IS ANYBODY WITH ME? I know the TMT staff is; let’s take 2012 to the next level like “Electric Avenue” pumping from a jacked-up convertible on A1A.
[Artwork: Keith Kawaii]