I wrote favorably about Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s feminist bookstore sketches for their Web series ThunderAnt some time ago. And I was certainly excited to hear that IFC picked up their show Portlandia. Having reserved commentary on the first season until its completion, as I like reviewing at least an entire season rather than have the pilot represent a television show, I’m glad the show has been renewed. This is especially smart on IFC’s part, as the sketch series’ proclivity for eating its own (in this case, hipster bon vivants) is a savvy way for the network to tap into its target demographic (hipsters love to eat their own). But I recommend it with two reservations. For one, I’m not sure it has much else to do but lampoon liberal dogoodery. For another, I’m defensive against Portland.
Let’s address my second point first, as it’s petty. I’m from Houston and have lived in Austin for nearly ten years. It’s no big secret that Austin and Portland have a faux rivalry. If the two cities could, we’d probably erect a civil war involving bicycles and beard-growing contests. Athens would probably swoop in and crush both of us.
Now, I should say that some of my favorite people represent Portland. Bitch, a publication to which I subscribe and occasionally pays me for freelance work, resides there. The folks on staff are really nice. I will be covering the music portion of SXSW for them and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it. I hope that half-week is filled with breakfast tacos and Lone Star. What’s more, the city was well represented in the media studies graduate program I attended. There were three folks hailing from there in my cohort (I called them the Portland Contingent), and two others who started their respective MA and PhD programs during my second year. They’re lovely people. Two of those girls I consider friends for life who I know I would’ve sat with at lunch if we knew each other in high school. But upon several occasions I’ve been audience to overtures of Portland’s superiority, to which I often felt compelled to say “You think you’re better than me? You ain’t better than me.” Also, “Say hi to your mother for me.”
Apart from intense civic pride, my acrimony is somewhat unsubstantiated. For one, despite being the best place for porch drinking, I know my city isn’t perfect. Among other things, we need more vegan eateries and we need to be nicer to queer people. We’re also a blue oasis in a big red war zone. Furthermore, I’ve never actually been to Portland. I made a connection from PDX to Eugene for Console-ing Passions last spring, but I didn’t poke around during my three-hour layover. For one, it’s a hassle to get back into an airport. For another, I don’t have a sense for the city’s geography–basically all I know is that Food Fight, Powell’s, and Voodoo Donuts are “somewhere”. Finally, I ran into Kristen of Dear Black Woman, who was also presenting at the conference. As she’s a fellow southerner and one of my favorite people, we chatted while waiting for our flight. Actually, we almost missed it because we were laughing so much. Seriously, they had to call us over the intercom to get us on the plane.
Portland defenses aside, my criticisms with the show extend deeper than civic rivalry. I will say that Portlandia does a good job putting the show in a specific place. Portland’s geography takes on a character in the show, giving scenes a sense of place and community. In the second season, I wonder if this show will be able of accomplish what SCTV (and its sitcom successors The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation) set out by building a show and its characters around a specific town and its inhabitants. I recognize that recurring characters–as well as links–can be the bane of sketch comedy’s existence, though Portlandia already has the feminist bookstore owners. As a fan of The State, I know that MTV’s mandate for recurring characters and catchphrases became a snarky in-joke which led to a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not suggesting that Portlandia follow these tropes in sketch comedy. But a strength of the series is its specificity of place and it’ll be interesting to see how it will expand and elaborate on this in the ten-episode second season.
However, my main problem with Portlandia is that I don’t think it has much to say. This ultimately detracts from the show’s established sense of place. While the show foregrounds its location, many of these scenes could play out in Austin, Madison, Athens, or other cities “where young people go to retire.” Portlandia has yet to discover what makes itself special and hasn’t been able to diversify its subject of interest. This is what’s keeping it from translating well from YouTube to television network.
Though there are funny scenes, the comedy tends to play out in obvious ways that don’t do enough to deepen or expand upon its basic premise. As of now, the show really only has one joke: hipsters sure are quirky. It plays this out in several ways: putting birds on craft items, having hotel staff trash a swanky lobby to impress a visiting band (played by chums James Mercer, Corin Tucker, and Colin Meloy), bike fights, dumpster diving, technology rabbit holes, Harajuku girls marveling at tiny coffee cups, locavorism, photoshoots for alterna weeklys, feminist bookstore owners astounding would-be clientele with their inefficiency, and a woman fretting over how to make the box that her partner’s strap-on was mailed in environmentally safe. But the joke is ostensibly the same each time and lacks any spirit of invention or criticism. Apart from having an at-times wobbly sense of sensitivity toward ethnic groups and trans men, I think it makes cheap potshots that don’t reveal any bigger truths about the communities they’re sending up. Compare a scene in Portlandia to this gem from Mr. Show. It may seem unfair to compare the first season of a show adapted from a Web series to one of sketch comedy’s standard bearers, but I think this scene neatly encapsulates much of hipster culture’s sense of entitlement and obscurity fetish. It plays for laughs, but lends some critical vigor to its subject. It also mocks the comic’s persona, which is something Armisen and Brownstein only attempt at.
The closest we come to something resembling the absurdity and critical bite in the first season of Portlandia is this send-up of locavorism. It’s my favorite. If the show could build upon this, we’ll really have something.
The other day, I was having a conversation with myself on the drive home from work. As an only child, this isn’t exceptional behavior for me. But the talk was productive for the purposes of this blog, so I thought I’d outline what conclusions I came to. Suffice it to say, I have a lot of opinions about Sleigh Bells and the sophomore jinx.
It’s kind of surprising, as I like Treats quite a bit but don’t rank it as highly as music critics I respect, like Ben Sisario and Jody Rosen. All Songs Considered’s Robin Hilton recently named it his favorite album of last year to considerable derision. Though I don’t think it can hold that title in a year of heavy hitters where I couldn’t suss out a clear contender, I do relate to his sentiment that Treats made him want to punch people in the best possible way. I’ll go him one better. The record’s gleeful ballast made me imagine those punches turning into leaping kittens.
Carrie Brownstein made the point that her incredulity toward Treats stemmed from its novelty and timeliness. She wasn’t sure if the record would date itself or prompt the duo to develop their sound. I empathize with her criticisms but made peace with them some time ago because, to a degree, all buzzworthy debut albums generate these concerns. Frankly, we won’t know for a year or so what its larger impact will be. The Strokes’ inaugural release still holds up really well. The Go! Team’s Thunder, Lightning, Strike–once described in laudatory tones as Northern soul reinterpreted on Fisher Price toys–kinda sounds like Fatboy Slim. This isn’t inherently bad, but suggests that one record was influential and precipitous of what followed it and the other didn’t impact the zeitgeist in quite the same way.
I don’t bring up Fatboy Slim to burn Norman Cook. I lobbied firmly on the side of the Chemical Brothers during the late 90s “who will be the king of electronica” debate that only music critics engaged in, but have some room in my heart for “Praise You”, “Right Here, Right Now”, and “The Rockafeller Skank”. Credit can be given in part to Spike Jonze’s video for one of those songs, but Slim’s sophomore release You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby broke so big in the states because selections were licensed to multiple advertisers and featured in the soundtrack to virtually every movie starring a young actor angling to break out of the WB. I actually heard “The Rockafeller Skank” for the first time in She’s All That, when Usher orders a bevy of professional dancers posing as high school students to shimmy through an intricate routine during prom.
Sleigh Bells’ new wave sound tap into that cross-promotional potential as well. “Riot Rhythm” is used to sell sports cars. “Kids” is featured in a promo for MTV’s remake of British teen soap Skins. And if The O.C. were still on, dammit if music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas wouldn’t have “Rill Rill” close the season, assuming that it ended with Summer reconnecting with Marissa’s ghost at a beach party instead of Seth sailing off into the sunset. The sampled acoustic guitar (lifted from Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That”) even recalls the loping piano hook in Phantom Planet’s “California,” the show’s theme song.
But what of the sophomore jinx? How does a buzz band follow up a lauded debut when they’re doomed to disappoint a fickle public? There are a few courses of action. You can strike while the iron is hot, as The Vivian Girls and Franz Ferdinand did when they followed up their first albums in quick succession without abandoning their sound. The Strokes waited two years and brought on producer Nigel Godrich to ultimately make the same record again, with a handful of synth flourishes and metal riffs. Life Without Buildings and the Unicorns disbanded. Members of the latter group formed Islands, a breezy outfit that anticipated Vampire Weekend’s indebtedness to Paul Simon’s Graceland by almost two years with their great debut Return to the Sea. The former can claim Any Other City as an promising work, largely because of Sue Tompkins’ infectious talk-singing.
Vampire Weekend are actually a good professional reference point for Sleigh Bells. My partner also cited Ratatat, with whom the twosome share sonic similarities. Both groups resumed and prospered following their initial success, largely by incorporating their novel ideas and thievery into larger concepts. Vampire Weekend did so this past year with Contra, which received backlash and critical accolades in equal measure. It’s also a pretty good pop record that builds upon their jittery, treble-heavy sound with deft employment of Auto-Tune and airy electronic instrumentation. While this move surprised some, it came as little surprise to those who recognized keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij as the band’s MVP. In 2009, long-time collaborators Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot front man Wes Miles teamed up as Discovery to release LP. While spotty and half-formed at times, this endearing album marries an unironic love of modern R&B giants like R. Kelly with the glacial production qualities of pre-millennial Timbaland and Max Martin. It didn’t take much guessing to imagine how this could be filtered into Vampire Weekend’s sound.
I don’t know what Sleigh Bells’ plans are or if they’re at all interested in heeding some blogger’s career advice. But if there’s anything I’d like them to elaborate on, it’s their beats. This seems to be a pair that, if they don’t outright love commercial hip hop, at least absorbed a fair amount of it in their youth. People tend to bring up bubblegum and metal when they discuss Treats, but “Run the Heart” is obviously a club track. The driving beat on “Crown on the Ground” recalls the Bomb Squad or, perhaps less charitably (since my partner grimaced at that comparison), DMX’s “Who We Be.” It’s all four-on-the-floor without relent right now. But if they played around with sequence patterns or hooked up with an inventive producer, the band might surprise themselves and their detractors.
Echoing Maura Johnston, I’d like vocalist Alexis Krauss to be foregrounded in this development. Given the cultural assumption that girl groups and female pop singers are controlled by men and bolstered by instrumentalist Derek Miller’s role as producer, there’s probably an assumption that Miller runs the show. Once the member of a would-be commercial girl group, Krauss’ gauzy vocals display surprising character under layers of processed metal riffs and pulverizing beats. It isn’t a strong voice but she imbues its limitations with a distinct smoothness and keen phrasing. Aaliyah achieved similar things with her feathery whisper of a voice. Hopefully, we’ll soon hear what treats we’ll be in store for next.
I’m assuming that everyone who regularly follows this blog is by now aware of two musical projects involving members of Sleater-Kinney. One is Wild Flag, an indie rock supergroup comprised of guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss, as well as Mary Timony and The Minders’ Rebecca Cole. The other is the Corin Tucker Band, whose 1,000 Years, which Kill Rock Stars will officially release on Tuesday that I listened to via NPR’s First Listen series.
I’m excited about these developments for a few reasons. I regret missing an opportunity to see Sleater-Kinney despite having heard recordings that confirm their reputation as one of the most formidable live rock acts in recent memory. But I’m pleased that the trio is attempting to make new music rather than take the more lucrative but potentially less creatively ambitious route of reuniting. Several peer acts choose the latter. While I don’t want to assume that Pavement, Slint, Guided By Voices, and others are merely cashing in on fans and interlopers’ nostalgic itch, there’s something unfulfilling to me about fashioning a simulacra of past concert experiences for a present-day audience. It’s not gonna feel like 1995, yo.
Thus, I think it’s braver to make new music within a different context, especially when female artists often have more abbreviated periods of cultural relevance than their male counterparts. I also think its empowering for veteran female musicians to come together to produce new work, as Tucker is doing with Unwound’s Sara Lund alongside her former band members efforts. In Brownstein’s case, I’m also energized by her ability to pursue multiple interests across media platforms, including music, blogging, and adapting a successful Web-based comedy series into a television program.
I have an investment in the music as well. Tucker’s 1,000 Years is a strong release with a particularly haunting first half that has Tucker exploring a myriad of musical influences beyond Sleater-Kinney’s feminist musical reinterpretations of Led Zeppelin. And while I didn’t catch the Shells, Brownstein and Timony’s past project that some friends found underwhelming, nor am I a Quasi fan, I am invigorated by the merging of Timony and Weiss’ uncontested instrumental profficiency.
Make no mistake. I’d absolutely attend a Sleater-Kinney reunion gig. I just find these developments far more interesting.
Last night, Tobi Vail shared wonderful news with the Typical Girls listserv: Kill Rock Stars’ acts Grass Widow and STLS were releasing new music today and playing a few gigs together. You can even listen to Grass Widow’s new album, Past Time, through Spinner. STLS’s Drumcore doesn’t officially come out until September 7th, but I’m already excited.
I’ve been following Grass Widow‘s mumbled surf rock since Carrie Brownstein highlighted them on NPR’s All Songs Considered SXSW preview. STLS’s new work also comes as good news. One half of this percussive duo is Lisa Schonberg, erstwhile member of the now-defunct Explode Into Colors, who I luckily got to see once before they disbanded. In sum, the two bands abide by two tenets I’ve since added to my list of biases in a recent post decrying the work of Ke$ha and Katy Perry, whose sophomore effort Teenage Dream also comes out today.
1. Eschew conventional rock outfit line-ups. Don’t clamor for a bassist or two guitarists if the music doesn’t call for it or if you can’t find instrumentalists willing to commit or with whom you gel. If your instrument is the accordion or you and a friend both want to play drums, let it happen.
2. Women picking up guitars and playing together will always excite me, especially if they’re interested in odd tunings or angular melodies.
Unfortunately, these acts will not be making it to Austin on their dates together. Hopefully they’ll change their minds and add a few dates. But if they’re coming to a venue near you — especially if you’re a blogger named Caitlin who is relocating to Portland — I do hope you check them out.
Back in 2009, Kristen at Act Your Age and I were talking about NPR’s coverage of that spring’s SXSW, which dovetailed into a discussion about Bob Boilen’s stilted interaction with Thao Nguyen. As the conversation continued, we began to air our shared disdain for him, which was engendered by his accompanying narration for song selections on All Songs Considered. These feelings were generated from his voice. We interpreted his voice and its tone as the epitome of rationally minded, sensitive white male condescension, particularly in his dealings with women and the output of female artists.
Having spent some more time with Boilen’s studied baritone, I’m not as prone to irascibility when I hear him speak. I still find his preferences to be predictable. However, it’s a criticism I’d wage on anyone affiliated with All Songs, as they tend to warm to the indie frippery of supposedly unadorned acts like Bon Iver, Mountain Man, the Swell Season, and Fleet Foxes. I appreciate that he can laugh at himself and take a joke when Robin Hilton and Carrie Brownstein mock his tastes. And I’ve found his guest dj sets with various musical artists to be very interesting.
But I do keep thinking about that word “studied,” which could be applied to any NPR correspondent. “Studied” is NPR’s M.O. It has long been the respite for liberals looking to escape AM radio’s conservative harangue. To these ears, NPR has as much to do with creating a through line between modern American intellectuals as rational, level-headed, and secular-minded people as the prevalence of deism did during the Age of Enlightenment. It also is particularly responsible for disseminating programming that appeals toward its white, upper-middle class, college-educated target audience. Patton Oswalt has ranted beautifully on the subject.
But the term “studied” is superficially applied here. Sure, when I think of NPR, I think of Saturday Night Live’s “Delicious Dish” segments, which centered around a fictional NPR program hosted by polite foodies Margaret-Jo McCullen (Ana Gasteyer) and Terri Rialto (Molly Shannon). Actually, one of my classmates in graduate school is currently an on-air personality for Austin’s NPR affiliate, and she got the job after imitating McCullen and Rialto.
Despite its uniform emphasis on elocution and non-regional dialect in the service of upholding radio’s tradition of providing what Michele Hilmes refers to in her seminal historiography Radio Voices: American Broadcasting 1922-1952 as “the national voice,” NPR correspondents do different from one another. I never confuse Nina Totenberg with Michelle Norris, nor do I have trouble singling out Ari Shapiro or Robert Seigel.
Furthermore, I’d hazard to guess that one of NPR’s breakout personality, Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, is exclusively defined by her chewy alto. Of course, Gross — along with This American Life’s Ira Glass — is also noted for her interviewing skills. Though I find her style to lean heavily on assumption and often attempt to box interviewees’ responses into preconceived trajectories, particularly evident in a 2009 interview with Drew Barrymore, I recognize its contributions.
But some have fetishized Gross’s voice as the thinking person’s sex object. I find this objectification insulting and troublesome. Perhaps it’s a variation on Tina Fey’s glasses. Maybe it presents a cultural assumption of the linkage between radio personality and phone sex operator, something I had to forcefully clarify for the perennial harassing male caller along with several female colleagues at my college radio station. That several contemporary American horror movies, including Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, The Fog, and Death Proof have positioned female deejays and radio personalities as victims and final girls further emphasizes our cultural discomfort with the disembodied female voice.