Tuesday, March 25, 2014

REW<<, Departeures

There are palm trees on the cover, and the first song starts out with a vaguely tropical feeling before turning into something closer to a French-pop duet. A song midway through starts out with ambient sounds that very closely resemble (and probably are) the sounds you hear when you’re settling into an airplane seat and getting ready for takeoff. The final track, “Arriver” (as opposed to the opening track, “Departeures”), ends with a pilot’s loudspeaker announcement and some kind of field recording of applause.

This is a travel album, one created during journeys which also replicates the disorientation and beauty of being on the move, abroad. It does that mainly through rather gorgeous, shifting dream-pop, consistently melodic (in a sticks-in-your-head even if you’re not sure what he’s saying way), but also with the directness of folk or punk. REW<< is Ryan Weber, who is half of the somewhat similarly focused duo Eric & Magill, and also has played in emotionally direct groups like the Promise Ring and its rootsier relative Decibully. That past is here somehow, though not so close to the surface that you’d guess it without knowing.

Departeures was recorded in “hotel rooms and train compartments” in Asia and Africa, and is largely a one-person affair. The music feels carefully put together by someone with a lot of time on his hands; and a laptop that able to be recharged at airports across the globe. These songs seem solitary, too; focused within the brain of the traveler, asking questions of himself like, “Where do I go from here?” or expressing thoughts like “it’s getting tougher all the time.”

Listening, though, I never imagine that those questions and thoughts pertain just to travel itself, but are more a reflection of how travel, especially solitary travel, presents a unique opportunity for contemplation.

It may be rare for a DIY pay-as-you-wish “singer-songwriter” bandcamp album, even one for the laptop era, to warrant an additional instrumental version of the album. Yet this one has it, and deserves it. My ears and mind are drawn more often to the music and the ever-shifting textures of Departeures than I am to the singing and lyrics. Or rather, the vocals are just one more piece of the fabric; they unite with the synthesizers, acoustic guitars and unexpected or unidentifiable sounds.

As an album it floats by quickly, but not without permeating your thoughts. Like travel itself, perhaps?


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On the challenges of writing about music in 2014

Excuse me, if you will; a moment of introspection.

This piece could be just as easily titled “On the challenges of parenthood” or “On the challenges of owning a house” or “On the challenges of having a job you like” or “On the challenges of being a music obsessive who also is interested in other things”. Or “On the challenges of being alive”.

It’s all related to time. Growing up = losing your grasp on time.

I’ve written about music as a hobby for 20 years.  Every time I write, I feel the specter of time over my head. It says, “why are you writing about this one when you’re further behind on this other one?”, or “when are you going to write your dream project”, or “you aren’t as good a writer as you would be if you had more time”, or “why are you writing when you should be doing [fill in the blank]?”

I read an interview once with Nick Hornby where he talked about his early career as a music critic and how no one can write about music for too long without getting burnt out on it. 20 years hasn’t burnt me out on music at all. If anything, it’s the opposite. The more time I spend writing about music or reading about music or listening to music, the more excited I get about doing more writing, more reading, more listening. Every week I learn about another musician I want to hear more of; some weeks I learn about several.

Feeling the crush of time makes me always feel like I’m missing out on a great band or album. It makes me always feel like I’m wasting my talents (so to speak) even when I’m happy with what I wrote. It makes me think again and again about writing something, without ever actually writing it. It makes me spend too much time writing about how little time I have, apologizing for not writing enough, and coming up with plans that I’m sure are going to help me manage my time better, but never do.

It can’t just be about aging. It is true that we have instant access to more bands and albums than ever before. If I wanted to, I could stay up all night just listening to bands I've never heard of before, who sound great. It used to take effort to hear a band that I read about in a magazine, words that were written months before. We've gained and lost from that change.

As time goes on, I get more interested in more types of music. This has been my trajectory since birth. I plan on it being true until the day that I die. But the more I get into, the harder it is to write about it all. Actually the harder it is to write about anything, because to write (or at least, to write well) you have to slow yourself down and pay attention, stop yourself from hunting and gathering at hyper-speed.

I am disillusioned with the current state of music criticism, even while I am part of it. This leads to a kind of paralysis tied to self-doubt. Should I write about music on a blog? Yes, I should, but I hate most blogs; they’re so shallow. Your average music writer for a blog seems to listen to an album once or twice before deciding definitively on it. I want to listen ten times, at least, before writing a word, and still never be sure if I'm right. 

Should I write about music for a print magazine? I do, but it takes forever between the writing and the publishing, and the word counts are so small, and it always ends up feeling anticlimactic when it’s published and I hold it in my hand. Should I write a book? I read books, I love books, I collect them. But what to write about, and how?

Most years lately I end up delaying writing about many, many albums until I get to the end of the year, when it’s free time for everyone to share their opinions left and right, to an increasingly suffocating degree. I can vote in some year-end polls, write a few short year-end blurbs, and feel like I wrote about more music than I really did.

I can feel like I contributed to the overall conversation about music, even though the number of times I actually wrote about music in the year is minuscule compared to the number of articles I wrote in my head.

And the new year will start, and I’ll feel hopeful that this year will be different. This year I’m going to write more, I’m going to choose more carefully, I’m going to edit myself better, I’m going to make every word count. I’m going to turn my barely-used website (4 posts in a year?) back into something people want to read. I’m going to get out those ideas that have lingered in my head for years, and make them work. And at the same time I’m going to keep up with all of the great music that comes out. I’m not going to feel like I missed out.

This conversation with myself is going to continue for the rest of my life. I don’t see any way that it won’t, unless I figure out the magic formula or give up. And I’ve always declared that I won’t give up. I’m going to be the 80-year-old in the concert audience with all 20-year-olds. I already feel like him sometimes. I’m going to stay interested in new music and old music and all music. I’m not going to tell people, “oh I’m so out of touch, I don’t even pay attention to music anymore.”

I’m going to be writing about music, because I don’t see any other way. And I’ll probably still be telling myself, next year is going to be better, next year I’m going to get it right.

(Or maybe this year will be that year?)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

25 Years Ago: Road to the Riches

March 14 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of De La Soul's playful-rap classic Three Feet High and Rising. It's a date likely to be noticed, in part because of the trio's recent headline-making move to put their music online for free; but also because of the creativity, in form and specifics, of the album.

And also because it's one of those hip-hop albums that non-hip-hop fans find themselves drawn to, one that's entered the pantheon of 'rock' music, likely to be hailed by, say Rolling Stone or Spin. In other words, it appealed to ‘cool’ middle-class white people. (A memory from a summer job in my teenage years: while discussing music with a black co-worker, she asked, "why do you white people like De La Soul and Public Enemy so much?") .

The album's message of nonconformity through individual expression, combined with their overall look at the time, made it likely to be classified as "alternative", something the group fought hard against but has also occasionally embraced.

Another landmark hip-hop album, at least equally significant but quite different, was released on the same day but is more likely to go unnoticed by the broader press: Road to the Riches, the debut album from Kool G Rap and DJ Polo. Its relative lack of cachet, at least among non-hip-hop critics/fans, no doubt is related to its comparative toughness, the more tragic urban stories the duo depicts and Kool G Rap's take-no-prisoners rapping style. As an entity, the group also had a shorter career, with less commercial success; Kool G Rap himself settled into more of an underground hip-hop hero's career while Polo disappeared from public view.

Road to the Riches is a sparse affair, without the epic album quality that appeals to rock critics. It has tracks that could be considered filler compared to their more powerful neighbors, like most hip-hop albums of its era. Even those, like the automobile tribute “Cars” and the DJ showcases “Cold Cuts” and “Butcher Shop”, are memorable. Yet the overall sleekness of the album ties right in with the hard-hitting minimalism that is one of their biggest strengths. The silence within this album is a major player, and helps make Kool G Rap all that much more of a riveting presence.

That presence has to be seen as a supremely influential one within hip-hop history. His compelling narrative style on certain tracks foreshadowed and influenced many of hip-hop’s greatest storytellers - Ghostface Killah, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., etc. His tough, yet quick and precise rhyming has been influential to legions of MCs of various stripes. America’s favorite late-night band, The Roots, have at least two straight-out tributes to Kool G. Rap on record; “Boom!”, where Black Thought imitates G Rap for a verse, and “Thought at Work”, basically a cover of Road to the Riches’ “Men at Work”.

“Men at Work” is basically a show-off for Kool G. Rap’s skills, and on that level it is absolutely devastating. He’s stringing words together quickly, breathlessly. They’re boasts mainly, some metaphors, some put-downs and a lot of big claims about the power of his rhymes. More than any specific phrase what impresses is mainly the river of words that comes forth relentlessly. I take that back; there are phrases here that stand out, and some that have been sampled and imitated over the years to come, but they emerge from within a flow that is astounding in its seemingly unstoppable energy. He goes and goes until, satiated, he cuts it off -- “Yo, Marley Marl, let’s stop the breakbeat.”

Marley Marl, the producer, is the secret weapon on that song, with its breakbeat and electric guitar. And he’s so on the album overall. This was the era when you had a DJ billed in the group name, contributing audible scratches, but a producer who really was the chief creative force behind the music. Marley Marl brought to Kool G Rap and Polo a minimalist smoothness, even prettiness that managed to both highlight the brutality of the raps and counterbalance it.

Ugliness + prettiness is an equation running through the totality of Road to the Riches, especially on the title track. If any single song here should be considered an all-time classic of hip-hop, it’s “Road to the Riches”. It’s a perfect example of Kool G Rap’s storytelling - basically a gangster tale, of a youth, born into a rough life, seduced by the promises of wealth and led into a life of violence and tragedy. It pulls no punches - revenge kidnappings, torture, jail time. But there’s a poetry about it, too, and an increasing sense of doom - “Looking at the hourglass / how long can this power last?”

The music is a big part of the story, too. It’s a classic example of the resourcefulness and creativity of the best hip-hop producers of the time, they way they would find breakbeats in unlikely sources and loop them, to a huge impact. Here it’s Billy Joel’s “Stiletto”, drumming that’s funkier than you’ll remember there being in a Billy Joel song, followed by a little piano part. It’s a moment that goes by quickly in the Joel song, but looped to seeming infinity it’s powerful stuff, gorgeous in its simplicity yet uncaring about the tragedy it’s soundtracking.

The song really tells two tales - its second and third verses are the gangster tale that makes the lasting impression, but the first verse is about hard work, about hustling to get a record deal and then getting one - “All my manpower for four bucks an hour / Took the time, I wrote rhymes in the shower / Shoes are scoffed cos the road gets rough / But I'mma rock it til my pockets ain't stuffed enough.” That’s another powerful theme of the album, the “I’ve made it” moment.

“It’s a Demo”, the duo’s first single, is more skeletal but just as classic, its roughness stemming from the song’s basic conceit - “it’s a demo”, like they said - and exemplifying the duo’s overall edge. “Poison” is muddy in a purposefully stomping way that suits the rhymes. There are non-singles here just as noteworthy: “Trilogy of Terror”, another sharp collection of boasts with light but somehow menacing music; “Rhymes I Express”, comparatively less fluid, with more of an LL Cool J/Run DMC-style of blocky enunciation, but no less tough.

As light in subject as some of the songs are, the brutality of the album is thorough - if not as much so as their other two albums (1990’s Wanted: Dead or Alive and 1992’s Live and Let Die). When it comes to a song like “Yours Truly”, Kool G Rap’s worldview is ugly in a retrograde way reflective of the macho man of the era’s fears - of AIDS, and by relation gay people; of “slutty” women and by relation both women and sex. That the song’s perspective resembles the likely voice of the narrowly focused wanna-be gangster of the title track probably shouldn’t be lost on listeners. Neither should the way the verses resemble crass stand-up comedy of the time. Meant to be so or not, it’s an exaggerated vision of masculine fears of the other - in this world, everyone different than you is out to get you, to take your money and give you a disease. Is the tough man really that tough, or scared?

“She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not” tries somewhat unconvincingly to open up Kool G Rap past his tough demeanor, to reveal his sensitive side (“a broken heart ain’t no joke”). It and “Yours Truly” might seem in opposition -- caring and uncaring -- but they really resemble two sides of one coin - the tough guy trying in different ways to steel himself against the world’s brutality. For if Kool G Rap’s rhymes themselves can be brutal - and they absolutely can, as much as any rapper then or now, they also set up a brutal, uncaring world around them. Kool G Rap’s articulation of that would itself be remarkable, but backed by Marley Marl’s intuitive, curated sound, it’s a whole different beast, the tough and the smooth joined together elegantly.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Jeffrey Lewis and the Jrams - s/t CD

I’m finding it harder to keep up with my favorite bands. Either by age 40 I’ve collected too many favorite bands or life is moving too fast for me to stay on top of it. Things happen that never did before – I’ll realize a band I listened to obsessively in 2005 has put out two more LPs since then without me knowing. Or, for example, Jeffrey Lewis put out an exclusive tour CD and I nearly missed the fact of its existence.

Actually, it’s available not just at shows but on his website. It’s under the name Jeffrey Lewis & the Jrams, not to be confused with Jeffrey Lewis & the Rain or Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard or the Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band or simply Jeffrey Lewis. Nevermind, go ahead and confuse them, they all involve the same person, the Lower East Side folk singer/comic artist/writer of sonnets based on Sonic Youth lyrics named Jeffrey Lewis.

Eclecticism is, to an extent, part of his music too – or at least this collection of 10 songs is lovably rag-tag. The CD starts with a lonely pop song that begins with him imagining his own funeral, wanting it to happen while he’s alive and moves into general longing for gatherings of friends and ponderings about his own ability or inability to maintain friendships within today’s social-media, fast-paced world (“You’re Invited”). [One thing I always relate to about Lewis is his ability to articulate the feeling that the world is slipping by you or making you feel like an out-of-touch alien.]

The CD ends with a short acoustic track that takes on a traditional folk form more than the rest (“Down to See”). In between those bookends is a song my wife mistook for the Violent Femmes, a spoken poem about Pussy Riot, a spacey daydream called “Nonsense” (“Nonsense rules supreme”; truer words not spoken) and a kind of gutter blues song about the hardships of daily life, like burnt pancakes or the morning newspaper not showing up (“It’s No Good”).

His wit and humor, within a Charlie Brown-like "woe is me" persona, is exemplified by the quick-and-easy "Outta Town", a would-be college-radio hit that seems like a tragic tale of heartbreak -- what can he do now that she's gone - until he reveals that she's only out of town for the weekend, and has only been gone for a day and a half. The bouncy, almost optimistic pessimism on display there is a hallmark of this collection and Lewis' overall discography, which is filled with many similar pleasures.

[P.S. To illustrate my first paragraph's point - while finishing up this piece, I spent some time looking at Jeffrey Lewis videos and stumbled across the fact that in 2012 he contributed to Tallahassee Turns Ten, a track-by-track, various-artists cover of the Mountain Goats' Tallahassee album. It has Jeffrey Lewis, Kimya Dawson, Hallelujah the Hills and bands I don't know yet. Awesome; this kind of discovery is what keeps me up too late, what makes me spend too much money and what keeps me excited about music every single day.]

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Darren Hayman - Blue House

If I’m not careful, I’m going to spend all of my money on bandcamp downloads of bands from the UK. Actually, if I’m not careful I’m going to get sucked into hefnet.com and spend all of my money on Darren Hayman and Hefner records that I don’t have. What this, a 7” where he sings with a small orchestra and so does Gordon MacIntyre from Ballboy? I’m sold. A 7” where he sings with Emma Kupa of Standard Fare? Awesome. Double-disc reissues of Hefner albums I already own (and love)? A live album with the Wave Pictures as his backing band? A double-CD from when he recorded a song each day during the month of January? And oh, that new T-shirt with the woman protecting the penguin looks awfully nice. And where did our money for a new roof go?

I’ve actually resisted most of those so far, but I have fallen hard for his new EP Blue House, which has an enticing graphic-novel-esque cover of a couple rowing a boat, on holiday. It’s five songs, which is sometimes all that you need.

The opener “Leaves and Stars” is a gorgeous work cut from bittersweet cloth. A divorce song, it seems, from the standpoint of onlooking friends. Change as a permanent fixture in the world; “Like the leaves and the stars / things cannot stay the way they are.” There’s a great electric guitar bit that sounds both mean and pretty, perhaps like the content of the song.

The songs here are pretty, even when the stories and feelings are not. “When the School Sold Its Fields” is a gorgeous, sad, five-minute ballad about, it seems, schools selling off the kids’ play yards for money. Memory – of childhood, of simpler times, of friends and lovers past -- is always at play in these songs, as it often is with Hayman’s music (and, for that matter, with most music that I love).

But these songs aren’t always wistful. Or, rather, they sometimes are wistful in the present tense, as on my favorite song here, the delicate “Kurhaus Blues”. This is one of those songs I will play again as soon as it ends; do you have those? In Hayman's notes about the song, which was based on a trip to Austria, he writes, “We walked around a ruined Kurhaus, lost amongst the mountains and trees. I imagined it when it was new. I do this a lot; imagine old things new.”

That imagining, of course, ends up involving not just the place, but also a relationship: “You know I love you / you know that I really really do”. The words about love aren’t why I find the song touching and a bit entrancing – it’s the particularly gentle way he sings over patient music that seems to catch things in slow-motion.

That Darren Hayman is still making such interesting and vibrant music 12 years after Hefner broke up might surprise you. Then again, do you remember Hefner at all? I don’t know whether people do. I don’t hear about them much, but I do live across the pond. In my world they’re huge.