Last Saturday, I finally delivered the DJ set I knew I had in me. I was disappointed by the show I gave on the eve of my 29th birthday–a set beleaguered with technical difficulties, disjointed transitions, and frayed nerves. By my assessment, the seams showed big time. But last weekend at the Alchemy, I was in the zone. I attribute my success to:
1. Setting up my first four songs ahead of time. Some day soon, I’ll incorporate a laptop into my setup. Later, when I have disposable income again, I’ll invest in more up-to-date equipment. But for now, my current setup consists of two turntables and a two-disc mixer I inherited from a friend. This setup leaves me vulnerable to skipping. A way to avoid this problem is to give yourself enough time to cue every track. This can be hard to do in a live setting where the venue, its sound system, and its patrons are variables. DJs have to keep the party going. This can be difficult when someone comes up to the booth to start a conversation about your equipment, Lil Wayne, or his/her burgeoning hip-hop career. Factor in a few missed cues and skipping problems and it’s that much harder to recover. The key to a successful evening is to always be ahead of the mix instead of running behind it or flailing underneath it. This requires a cool head and quick instincts. So making sure my first four songs were on point before I started gave me ample time to prepare the rest of the set, as well as field requests and chat with folks throughout the night.
2. Working with a mix. Some DJs who use laptops work exclusively from a pre-constituted mix. Ugh, why book a DJ if s/he’s just going to push play on an iTunes mix? That said, it’s nice to have an anchor. So I burned three mix CDs and kept one of them in the mixer at all times. When I played all the songs I wanted off one mix, I switched it out with another. Now, I integrated these mixes with other records and played off the crowd, the venue, and whatever I wanted to hear at any given moment. I also shuffled the order I played the songs on each mix CD. But I always had a batch of songs at the ready and this kept me from running around and constantly switching out material.
3. Practicing with the equipment. I’m just starting out as a DJ, so I’m still getting used to working with two turntables and a mixer at once. But I’m more confident each time I do it. This goes for playing music as well as setting up my gear. My partner and I share our equipment. He’s deejayed quite a bit more than me. I had him coach me in our kitchen, but I break out the equipment and practice alone. He still helps me cart the equipment–not because it’s too heavy or intimidating, but because he’s a supportive partner. And I ask him to stand in the audience while I check my levels. But I’m really conscious about gender stereotyping around technology, so I learned what every plugin connects to and why and am learning how to cue, cut, mix, and fade between each song on my own.
4. Believing in myself. I had a good time on Saturday. I loved what I was playing. I had conviction, which I hadn’t really found during my first two sets. The audience responded by cheering, dancing, and making out (!) to my set. They got into what I was playing, in large part because I was enjoying myself so much. You get what you give. Part of this had to do with demonstrating greater fluency with the material. I’m working with the genres of soul, R&B, and hip hop in part as a challenge. I’m invested in breaking down rockist traditions of taste hierarchies and white privilege, especially those circulating (unintentionally or not) within punk, post-punk, and riot grrrl, which are genres I know a bit better. I do research as an instructor and scholar, largely so that I can learn or unlearn about things beyond my intellectual comfort zone. I listen and learn to destabilize. Why not turn that skill set toward deejaying?
Also, this is the music I need to hear and share right now.
In the future, I’d like to post my set lists here. I’m taking a class on digital production this fall, and have set this as a goal for myself. I will probably use SoundCloud or 8Tracks, but am open to suggestions. For now, fans can access last Saturday’s set list through Feminist Music Geek’s Facebook page. I’ll leave you now with a few songs that I especially loved playing. Don’t hesitate to put in your requests.
Last night, I got my nose out of the book I was reading (Ien Ang’s Desperately Seeking the Audience, for curious parties) and went out to shake a tail feather. The Majestic, a local venue in Madison, hosted a hip hop-themed 80s vs. 90s dance party.
Obviously, I don’t need to defend the merits of hip hop’s golden era. OutKast’s ATLiens, Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen, Wu-Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Nas’ Illmatic, Biggie’s Ready to Die, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, De La Soul’s Stakes Is High, Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly, Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride, Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s Very Necessary, Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, MC Lyte’s Lyte as a Rock, and The Fugees’ The Score all belong in the history books as much as they do in my car. Since this music scored my adolescence and many bedroom dance parties, I was happy to raise a glass and toast myself on the floor.
As this was the music of my youth, it was also the music of my feminist awakening. While I recognize that many female MCs don’t associate with the term “feminism,” their commanding presence and demand for self-respect and sexual autonomy was hugely influential on how I came to understand the world and my place in it as a teenage girl and later as an adult woman. Later I’d acquire a copy of Tricia Rose’s definitive Black Noise, a tremendously influential piece of hip hop scholarship that I believe has only been surpassed by her more recent effort, The Hip Hop Wars.
Lest we encase this era of mainstream hip hop in amber, there are a number of contemporary female MCs whose careers and artistic contributions warrant attention, including Psalm One, Dessa, Las Krudas, Nicki Minaj, Invincible, Miz Korona, MicahTron, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Lady Sovereign, JNaturaL, Rita J, and Jean Grae, among so many others. Let’s also not forget the veteran female artists who rose to prominence during this point in popular musical history and are still in the game. Missy forever.
Last night, the deejay represented Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, Lauryn Hill in Nas’ “If I Ruled the World,” along with Janet Jackson, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Queen Latifah, and (after I checked in with one of the deejays) TLC. But c’mon–this was a monumental time for women in hip hop, as well as female R&B groups who were influenced by hip hop and hip hop culture. A handful of songs hardly suffice when you could devote an entire night to women’s contributions to hip hop during this period.
To be fair, I didn’t hear Positive K’s “I Got a Man,” Bone Thugs’ “First of the Month,” or the Bad Boy remix of Craig Mac’s “Flava in Your Ear” either. But as fine a time as I had last night, there were a number of voices I’d like to have heard from folks like Amil, Erykah Badu, Eve, Lil Kim, Rah Digga, Foxy Brown, maybe even dig deep into the crates for some Sparky D. Some of them may have gotten their due after I left. But all of them necessitate future dance parties. Maybe some clips can help get one started. Feel free to make requests.
SXSW 2011 kicks off today. I’ll be diving into the music portion of the festival with abandon next week and reporting on it for Bitch. For those interested looking for suggestions on what to check out, here’s my rundown.
But before we get started, let’s check some things off our list.
1. Are you wearing comfortable, close-toed shoes that can weather days of walking and standing?
2. Do you have earplugs? Some shows are really loud. You don’t want to be yelling at people during polite conversation days later.
3. Are you staying hydrated? Sure, Lone Star flows freely (and is marked up, though Brooklynites don’t notice), but make sure you’re drinking lots of water.
4. Have you checked the weather before going out?
5. If you’re especially susceptible to cedar fever and the like, did you take any allergy medication?
6. Do you have a schedule? More importantly, do you have several options for each time slot? A lot of us want to see Raphael Saadiq, which means many of us won’t. It’s nice to have contingency plans.
7. Do you have a little bit of sunscreen handy for the day shows? Remember what Darlene Conner learned from her grandmother. Skin is a gift!
Also, some industrious folks can pull a Hilah and make potables to nosh on and barter. I will not be one of them, though, as I’ll most likely be macking on Kebabalicious. For a guide to vegan-friendly fare, check in with Vegan Smurf.
Oh, and musicians. Please don’t spend your set futzing with tunings. You aren’t playing an evening at the Paramount. Yes, I realize that SXSW is a bit of a grind and no doubt showcases feel dehumanizing come Saturday. But if you’re really great, we’ll see you again in an actual concert where you can dazzle us for two hours. For now, you have maybe 50 minutes. Make it count.
Okay. So here is who I’m excited to see.
First, there are the acts that I already know I like. Folks like Thao Nguyen, Jean Grae, Invincible, TOKiMONSTA, Dessa, Glasser, Screaming Females, Julianna Barwick, Grass Widow, tUnE-yArDs, Nite Jewel, Smoosh, Andreya Triana, Indian Jewelry, Sharon Van Etten, and Schmillion.
Then there are legendary types. Did you see that Hazel Dickens is playing? What? Yes, I’ll try to see her. Thanks, “Hot Topic,” for nudging me toward all kinds of important women and/or queer artists.
For better or worse, hype is a big part of what drives SXSW. Hell, it’s what drives the music industry writ large. In addition to all the people lining up to see James Blake, Gold Panda, Weekend, Dum Dum Girls, Tennis, and maybe Fang Island, I’m sure folks are going to try and catch Cults, Yuck, the Joy Formidable, and Ear Pwr. I hope Butts catches some of that buzz. At first, I firmly classified this duo as a novelty act. But their 20-second songs about things like running out of toilet paper are pretty catchy and basically the kind of music I’d want to make with my friend Curran. Also, this band came together after some drinking. The B-52s formed while getting drunk at a Chinese restaurant, and if you call their first two albums “novel,” I’ll fight you.
I’m not sure where Big Freedia and Esben and the Witch are in their careers at this point. I feel like they might be waning a bit. I thought Freedia’s performance at the Kool Keith show was underwhelming and Esben’s debut record was poorly received. Yet I’m still interested in seeing if Freedia will pull out a great show. Also, I heard that Esben gave a great performance at the Matador anniversary weekend in Las Vegas, so I’m still interested.
There are also acts I’d like to see get more attention. Big Freedia’s celebrity has somewhat eclipsed Katey Red, another artist associated with bounce who I actually like more. Wye Oak is a longtime favorite and have steadily built a sizeable following. Their new record is also making me itch to do a comparative analysis between them and Beach House. White Mystery have gotten some good reviews and were a festival highlight for me last year, so I’m going to check in with them again. I haven’t seen the Shondes, but I’m so excited to see them that I encouraged readers to donate money to replace their van so they could play here.
I also like to find a few acts I think have a shot at universal appeal. Folks like Thao Nguyen make accessible, interesting music that I think most everyone I know would like. Maybe you can think of it as “the NPR vote.” Some contenders this year are Carla Morrison, Quadron, Wonfu, Gold Motel, Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, Khaïra Arby, and Frazey Ford. I’m also interested in seeing Japanese funk group Zukunasisters.
Supergroups are important too. It’s nice to see awesome musicians come together on a new project. Wild Flag is getting much attention, and “Glass Tambourine” is a rad song. However, please note that Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda, that dog.’s Petra Haden, and Shimmy Shimizu of Cornelius have a promising act called If By Yes. Their songs are breezy and refreshing, like a glass of lemonade with a shot of Tabasco.
Alongside Glasser and Barwick, some ladies are tending toward the dreamy and the mystical. I’ll refrain from comparing any of them to Kate Bush because that’s lazy. However, I’m planning to check out Braids, Grimes, Phantogram, Tamaryn, and Austra. I’m especially interested in artists who do interesting, unsettling things with atmosphere. Lookin’ at you, EMA, Lower Dens, Las Robertas, Blank Realm, No Joy, Christian Mistress, and the White Eyes.
SXSW is a festival that prioritizes rock music. Unfortunately, dance acts and hip hop artists tend to get the shaft. There’s a shocking dearth of hip hop this year beyond what I already listed, though I strongly recommend you follow Scratched Vinyl‘s coverage (founder/editor/personal friend Chi Chi Thalken will be giving a rundown on KOOP’s “Hip Hop Hooray” this Sunday at 2 p.m., so tune in). However, while I don’t want rock to be the festival’s default genre, I do upon occasion enjoy a cold beer and an electric guitar. For folks looking to rock out, might I suggest Heavy Cream, Fever Fever, Puffyshoes, Those Darlins, and Le Butcherettes?
Austin is a thriving music community in its own right, so check out some of our local talent. Christeene‘s an international superstar, but she’s ours. Schmillion are opening for the Bangles, so they’re due to break huge any day now. Agent Ribbons and Soft Healer spin a moody, beautiful tune that befits our vast landscape. Most everyone can get down to Akina Adderley and the Vintage Playboys‘ retro soul.
Likewise, there are some great showcases being put on by locals. I already mentioned GayBiGayGay, which will nurse you through your Sunday hangover. Mess With Texas has become a big-tent tradition. Girls Rock Camp Austin is partnering with Bitch for their day show and is holding a benefit where attendees can receive a guitar signed by Susanna Hoffs. Veronica Ortuño is holding her third annual Night of Rage. KVRX and Party Ends are putting on some good shows as well. And even though Terrorbird Media isn’t a local promotion company, it’s run by some very nice people with good taste. Also, apparently the good people at Karaoke Underground are doing their thing at Dive on Saturday, the 19th. Belt your favorite indie rock tunes, regardless of whether you have a voice left.
I attempted to be comprehensive here, but I’m sure I forgot some important people. Feel free to leave endorsements in the comments section and I’ll see you on the fairground.
Jennifer Kelly is my favorite writer at Dusted, my go-to music e-zine. Recently she conceded that this year in music had a lot of contenders, but no clear leader of the pack. She then went on to list ten albums she really liked regardless of music critics’ echo chamber. It’s a good list, and I recommend you check it out. I also think you should give some time to Wetdog, a British punk band I learned about from her list.
In many ways, 2010 was an embarrassment of riches. So many big-name artists released career-peak records and lots of up-and-comers made me excited to listen to music each week (day? half-day? quarter-day? how rapid is the cycle now?). On paper, it’s a banner year. Yet I can’t pick one album that defines it. But that’s probably a good thing.
If I were to draft a list, three albums would place at #2. Critical darling Janelle Monáe comes the closest to topping my list. She defied commercial expectations with a pop album called The ArchAndroid about a futuristic metropolis that fused Prince with Octavia Butler. Joanna Newsom channeled Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, and Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan to create the dusky reveries on the enveloping Have One on Me. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy lifted synths straight out of Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and the Eurythmics’ “Love Is a Stranger” while borrowing from Berlin-era Bowie for This Is Happening, which was book-ended by two of the man’s best songs.
The last two artists also managed to follow up and improve upon the albums that made them big tent attractions. Like most great pop music, they transcend their influences and ambitions. Yet each album is weighed down by at least one song. I always skip Happening‘s “You Wanted A Hit?,” which is too long and repetitive, even if it is aware of these things. I won’t fault Monáe and Newsom’s scope, but pruning a few tracks off for an EP or as b-sides might have been helpful. I think “Say You’ll Go” and “Kingfisher” don’t have the impact they could have elsewhere. If Newsom were referencing PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, “Kingfisher” would be her “Horses in My Dreams,” but it’s buried here.
BTW, no one’s jostling for #3. It’s Flying Lotus’ elegantly trippy Cosmagramma all the way.
As with every year, there are albums that are overrated and underpraised. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a perfect #11. It’s got fascinating angst and pathos that recalls another celebrity guilt rock record, Nirvana’s In Utero while squarely situating it as a black man’s experiences with fame. West’s bionic, prog-inflected production is the most potent it’s ever been. “All of the Lights” and “Monster” are among the year’s best songs, though credit goes solely to Nicki Minaj for the latter. But Jesus am I tired of reading ovations that cite the rapper’s Twitter feed. Yes, it provides insights into his process. And yes, it is noteworthy how West made so many tracks available to fans before the album was released (and maybe I’d bump it to #10 if “Chain Heavy” made the final cut). But it’s hardly album of the year or even a career best (in my opinion, he still hasn’t improved upon Late Registration).
Conversely, Spoon’s Transference is an ideal #9. People seem to hold one of America’s best rock bands in lower esteem this year for making an incomplete-sounding album. To my ears, this is an ingenious thing for a band so preoccupied with space and compositional austerity to do with a break-up record. I keep returning to tracks like “Is Love Forever” and “Nobody Gets Me,” yearning for a resolution I know I won’t find. I’d also mention that Marnie Stern‘s latest record (which would probably round out the top five) and Dessa‘s A Badly Broken Code (a peerless #4) were slept on. If they didn’t place higher, it’s only because they didn’t feel the need to announce their greatness and came on as slow burners. The same could be said of Seefeel‘s earthy dub on Faults (possibly #7) and Georgia Anne Muldrow, who had an incredibly prolific year that peaked with Kings Ballad (between #8-10). Psalm One’s Woman @ Work series on Bandcamp has me anticipating her next album. Oh, and since this was a year largely defined by albums about break-ups and shaky make-ups, Erykah Badu’s Second World War (#8) needs your attention.
There’s also lots of new stuff I liked this year that I hope ages with me. I’ve made peace with my misgivings about the limited shelf life of Sleigh Bells’ bubblegum through blown speakers, in part because Treats (#12-15 with some staying power) sounds amazing in the car, which is where all great pop records become immortal in the states. I’d like Best Coast more if leader Bethany Cosentino just went ahead and wrote a concept album about the munchies or her cat instead of devoting so many songs to boys. Sufjan Stevens’ indulgence bored me silly, as did Surfer Blood’s inability to rise past their influences and sound like themselves. Big Boi and Bun B’s ambitious releases deserve their accolades, but they should excite me more than they do. I have yet to fall in love with Robyn the way everyone else has, but Rihanna continues to be my girl.
I’m really into the new Anika record, which is tailor-made for insomniacs. However, I’m certain that a woman with a Teutonic monotone snarling her way through catatonia as producer Geoff Barrow quotes post-punk’s buzzsaw guitar noise holds limited appeal. I always welcome a new Gorillaz album, and Plastic Beach certainly delivered. Among others, I liked new efforts from Baths, El Guincho, Noveller, M.I.A., Grass Widow, Sharon Van Etten, Soft Healer, Beach House, Mountain Man, The Black Keys, Cee-Lo Green, Tobacco, Sky Larkin, Tame Impala, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Nite Jewel, Deerhunter, Vampire Weekend, Warpaint, Antony and the Johnsons, The Budos Band, and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, even if the last two artists essentially release the same great album each time out. And even though I get a free cocktail if Merge wins the Album of the Year Grammy, Matador had a good year for me with Glasser, Esben and the Witch, and Perfume Genius, whose harrowing confessionals will hopefully find a larger audience (Sufjan fans, listen up).
(Note: don’t get me started on the Arcade Fire. I’m going to be mean and unfair, as I’ve been since I gave up on liking Funeral. Suffice it to say, I’m not fond of them and think I can tell you more about living in a Houston suburb than they can. But it won’t be a productive conversation because I’ll tear up my throat launching cheap shots about dressing for the Dust Bowl and wearing denim jackets to prove that you’re one with the working man. It’s not helpful, so I’ll be kind and say they’re fine at what they do but I want no part of it.)
Part of why I can’t settle on a #1 is because I don’t think it matters. I don’t think I need an album to define the year for me. It’s always seemed that selecting one was a fool’s errand. Steve Albini may very well be an insufferable jerk, but he’s absolutely right when he said “Clip your year-end column and put it away for 10 years. See if you don’t feel like an idiot when you reread it.” Last year, I chose Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone. While it helped situate my feelings for the year, it can’t hold a candle to her modern classic Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. But now I’m not even sure what the point is. This exercise doesn’t take into account all of the older music I finally prioritized this year. For me, 2010 is just as much defined by digging through Cocteau Twins and Throwing Muses records (4AD had a good year in all kinds of ways), as well as getting excited about Mary Timony, Jenny Toomey, and Carla Bozulich.
Furthermore, I’ve sometimes lost sight of why I write in this medium. Apart from being vulnerable to having my content scraped by sketchy sites and feeling like I should be doing something more politically important with my time, it can be a challenge to keep the routine of blogging from dulling the impact of your work. This may have more to do with a need to explore scarier forms of writing, like the kind that requires the involvement of a guitar or a storyboard. As a departure, I started a film blog series for Bitch last month. It’s been the right kind of challenging, though I’m not always certain I’m effectively communicating what I hope to accomplish. Music allows for abstraction where films require exposition, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m writing several variations on “I walked to the chair and sat down.” But I’m learning and it’s been a lot of fun.
I’ve also been fortunate this year to contribute content for Bitch, Tom Tom Magazine, Elevate Difference, I Fry Mine in Butter, and Scratched Vinyl, for which I’m grateful and hope I’ve done a service to those publications. In addition to music critics I love like Laina Dawes, Maura Johnston, and Audra Schroeder, I’m excited and challenged by writing from Amy Andronicus, Always More to Hear, Soul Ponies, Jenny Woolworth, Sadie Magazine, Women in Electronic Music, This Recording, and regularly follow podcasts like Cease to Exist and Off Chances.
I don’t mean to be self-effacing toward my efforts, as I’m proud of them. It’s been a good year and it’s healthy to be critical when you’re taking stock. Perhaps I’m responding to a lack of stability. This was a year of change. Some changes were seismic, like when several friends had babies. Others were gradual, like my partner launching a successful music e-zine and me delving into the world of freelance writing in earnest while taking a deep breath and learning to play the guitar. While some friends returned to Austin, others moved away this year and more are soon to follow in 2011. There’s even an infinitesimal chance I’ll be in that number, but the likelihood of uprooting and leaving the food carts and backyard parties of my adopted home is so small and too profound to consider, so I push it away.
But as I’ve thought on these feelings during the year, the lyrics from LCD Soundsystem’s “Home” resonate. Though detractors may note Murphy’s manipulating my generation with lines like “love and rock are fickle things” and “you’re afraid of what you need . . . if you weren’t, I don’t know what we’d talk about,” I’ve taken comfort in crooning them in my car. That’s the best of what pop music can accomplish–taking abstractions and making them applicable to life’s mundane realities, at times clarifying their importance. In whatever medium, I can’t wait for another year of writing about it.
Recently, I put together my list of favorite albums and tracks from this year for another publication. In doing so, it occurred to me that some of my offerings were not discussed here. There are three reasons for this. For one, I don’t write about dudes’ music because I don’t need to be another outlet that tells you the new Flying Lotus record is great (though Scratched Vinyl wrote up a nice review). For another, I’ve never viewed this blog as a tastemaker. I don’t tend to follow trends, I like to take time to absorb things, and I often find myself defending or reconsidering obscured pop cultural artifacts. Finally, if I can’t figure out a way to discuss something from a feminist perspective, it often gets passing reference or entirely misses this site’s purview.
But some readers (primarily friends I consort with in my real life) tend to ask me what I’m listening to. I’ve mainly subsisted on a steady diet of Cocteau Twins this year, which I’ll elaborate on in a later post. However, I always try to keep up with new material. While I’ve mentioned some relevant artists (Janelle Monáe, Sleigh Bells, Dessa, Mountain Man) and avoided more obvious selections (you can assume that I like Björk and Dirty Projectors’ Mount Wittenberg Orca). There are also some artists I overlooked, which is why I’d recommend that you check out last year’s offerings from Grass Widow and Talk Normal, as well as encourage fans of The Knife to scale back two years to listen to The Nextdoor Neighbors’ Magic Vs. the Machine, which Kristen at Act Your Age clued me into after a clip for “Liars” was made at Reel Grrls’ music video workshop. The artists below may not come out of left field for some readers, but I thought I’d briefly outline some releases I’ve liked this year that you might also enjoy.
Georgia Anne Muldrow – Kings Ballad
You may not know it, but the prolific Muldrow is having quite a year. She’s already released a solo record and SomeOthaShip with rising star Declaime, the latter of which caught NPR’s attention. Kings Ballad has been on continuous repeat this summer, yet another smart, eclectic mix from Ms. Muldrow. While some people elected Katy Perry’s inane “California Gurls” as their seasonal anthem, I gotta go with Muldrow and Declaime’s “Summer Love.”
Nite Jewel – Am I Real?
Ramona Gonzalez has been on my radar since last year’s SXSW. Her new EP delivers the Xanadu on Xanax sound that’s become her trademark. It’s not a startling record, but it’s got a good groove that warms up an icy sound. I’m not sure if we’ll care about chillwave in five years, but I’m pretty sure I’ll pull this record out after a long night of partying transitions into early morning ruminations. Regardless of what wave it’s currently riding, it’s good music to chill out to.
No Mas Bodas – Erotic Stories From the Space Capsule
Austin pride. Member Sheila Scoville graciously invited me to this album’s CD release party earlier this year, which I regrettably could not attend. However, I read Audra Schroeder’s review of their album, gave it a listen, and became a fan of the group’s hypnotic fusion of synthesizers with cello (like Björk, I’m a big fan of music that pairs electronic and acoustic instrumentation). I caught them during a lunch performance at Girls Rock Camp Austin earlier this summer and while I think they have yet to master their live presentation, I still find this haunting record to be full of potential.
Noveller – Desert Fires
Sarah Lipstate is another Austin affiliate, though she’s making her name in New York and parts of Europe following a stint with Parts & Labor. I was certainly aware of her talent when she was one-half of One Umbrella and sat in with Glenn Branca during the time we shared as deejays at KVRX, and I’m impressed with the solo work she’s doing now. Wasting no time following up her debut full-length Red Rainbows, Lipstate continues to build and invent upon her abstract guitar work with her second album. While she also accompanies her performances with self-made films, I really appreciate that the sonic landscapes she creates can let your imagination wander.
White Mystery – (s/t)
I had the pleasure of catching Chicago sibling duo Alex and Frank White at the GRCA SXSW day show and they killed. They were also really nice and personed their merch table stocked full of self-made goods, including a pair of tie-dyed underwear. Ms. White actually teaches merch workshops, which is extra awesome. Their self-titled debut may especially appeal to rock purists looking for some new garage rock to blast in the car.
What albums have you liked this year? Who are your new favorite artists?
Earlier this week, Caitlin at Dark Room posted a couple of mixes from her college radio days on Facebook and asked for her friends to contribute some of their playlists. This seemed like an interesting project with findings worthy of disclosure here, especially since I often make casual reference to my tenure as a deejay at KVRX.
I started in the fall of 2002 at the beginning of my sophomore year. A fan of Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume, the urge to have my own radio show was planted during my freshman year of college. My friend Brooke had a show at KANM called “Weakdays” and knowing she could program a show inspired me to give it a go. We both liked The Dismemberment Plan, we both could read PSAs aloud, and I felt confident that I could master the switchboard too.
A few days before the semester began, I filled out an application and secured a timeslot for Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. As KVRX shares its frequency with KOOP and switched over from FM to RealAudio, I felt better knowing I had the entire first semester to iron out any kinks my show may have without being able to get picked up in someone else’s car. The Internet still felt very private at the time, even though RealAudio could get picked up in another part of the world instead of inside the condensed hub of Central Austin.
I named my show “Hang the DJ,” a reference to The Smiths’ “Panic.” As the song was a modern rock radio staple, the program title should be an indication that I was half-hearted in my attempt at becoming a fan. A year later, I’d acknowledge that I just couldn’t get into them as I was developing my show. Come spring 2003, I changed the name of my show to “Cheesecake or Fugu,” a title that came to me in the shower when I was remembering a review I’d read in high school of Cibo Matto’s Viva! La Woman! that compared their sound to the Japanese delicacy.
Listening to tapes from that time, apart from their lo-fi charm and developing fluency with related technology, two things strike me: 1) I wasn’t yet comfortable talking into a microphone and 2) I don’t listen to a lot of that stuff anymore. Listening to a November 2002 broadcast, it’s surprising to me how many dude singer-songwriters and indie bands I played. Clem Snide, Death Cab for Cutie, and Richard Buckner? Pass. Belle and Sebastian and Okkervil River? Not against it, but wouldn’t fight someone to defend their merits. Some of these acts were indicative of the buzz they generated, as well as the mercurial nature of being of-the-moment. Remember when we were supposed to care about Ben Kweller and The Warlocks? You don’t? Me either.
Of course, that these broadcasts seem foreign to me now is largely the point. During the first six months at KVRX, I hadn’t locked into what I liked yet. I was trying to fit in, catching up to just how much music I now had at my disposal. In all candor, the first six months at KVRX were terrifying to me. The office itself was scary, as it was usually peopled with oft-bespectacled dudes huddled together and volleying well-considered, often incendiary opinions about obscure music. It was full-on High Fidelity. Several of these guys would later become my friends. But at the time I was 19 and not ready to share that I had just heard of the Mountain Goats. So I kept quiet.
Incidentally, KVRX was something of a meet market that seemed particularly inclined toward heterosexual activity. Lots of hook-ups, some of which resulted in marriages or at least amicable splits. It makes sense, as obsessive, esoteric types tend to gravitate toward one another. Young girls can be especially vulnerable and I was no exception. I dated two deejays during my first year at KVRX. Looking back on that time with a more nuanced understanding of feminist politics, I feel weird and more than a little embarrassed about the gendered power dynamics of romantic pursuit. But I also found my partner there, who I formed a relationship with on more egalitarian terms.
I’d like to think that dating fellow deejays had less to do with setting me apart than the talent I developed during my time at KVRX: writing reviews. As deejays needed to log four hours of volunteer time each month in order to keep their shows, drafting reviews for new releases was a great opportunity, especially since the station would receive hundreds of new albums each month. A review for one full-length album translated into a volunteer hour. I averaged about three reviews a week, thus gaining awareness of several artists as well as the output of the labels they were signed to. Through this, I fell in love with artists like Broadcast and Electrelane. As a journalism major, this acclimated me to a constant writing schedule. Through reviews, I developed my musical preferences and found my voice as a writer. And people started noticing my reviews, even occasionally printing them in The Call Letter, KVRX’s ‘zine.
But nothing got me better acquainted with music than putting together a weekly show. And while many deejays had specialty shows where they focused on particular genres like death metal, hardcore, or the blues, my show was decidedly free-form. At KVRX, free-form shows abided by the following requirements: each hour of free-form programming had to feature artists from five genres, two Texas artists, and five selections from the new bin, where the most recent reviewed offerings were kept. In addition, KVRX maintains a strict “none of the hits” policy. During my time, that meant that any artist who received even moderate success on any mainstream music network or radio station within the past ten years could not be played. Some deejays found these sanctions to be restrictive, but having these limitations motivated me to dig deeper and listen more broadly.
I also learned how I wanted my show to be perceived conceptually. I made sure the music was continuous, even going so far as to select instrumentals to talk over while I ran through my playlist, which I’d update after a three-song set. I also tried to vary songs from genre to genre, pairing Tom Zé’s “To” with Deerhoof’s “Milkman.”
I was also fond of layering songs into one another, overlapping the final moments of Sack and Blumm’s “Baby Bass Buss” with the intro to Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic.” I made sure that song selection went with the time of day, which once I got on FM was always in the evenings, particularly during safe harbor so I could play hip hop and Gravy Train!!!!. I also tried to bridge the content of my show with promos, tags, and the programs that bookended mine. Before I got to Raymond Williams in graduate school, I was familiar with the concept of flow.
I also became aware of my voice as an on-air talent. Though some deejays mumble or try to take focus away from themselves, hearing my voice bandy words about (often to myself) made me cognizant of articulation, elocution, and tone. There was also a performative quality to presenting an on-air persona as I intoned an idealized version of my natural speaking voice. It also skeeved me out when some dudes would call in to inform me of the supposed sexiness of my voice. I got really good at telling strangers to fuck off and hanging up on people mid-conversation. Unfortunately, these instances were fairly common amongst my female peers and some endured more serious harassment.
BTW, kudos to the dude callers who were supportive and respectful. Thanks to the nice lady callers as well.
Oddly enough, this awareness did not lead me toward doing a female-only show. I dabbled in it occasionally. I did a women’s issue news program one summer with a girl named Kelly I met when we were cast in The Vagina Monologues. I briefly took over a friend’s female-only show when she quit during her first semester in the UT American Studies master’s program. At the time, I found doing a female-only show limiting. Now I think I’d have to do a free-form female-only show. Why not pair Umm Kulthum with Dessa?
I started graduate school in fall 2006. I thought about returning to KVRX after about a year off from undergrad. But I felt like it was another group of kids’ turn. Also, I simply didn’t have the time to devote to a weekly show and its related responsibilities. When I applied to PhD programs, the schools’ radio stations were a determining factor and will continue to be when I reapply.
In the meantime, a podcast series is appealing to me, especially after I started listening to Veronica Ortuño‘s “Cease to Exist“. Rest assured that when I do start another radio program, all broadcasts will be well archived so I can dig ’em up and tune in again.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve long been on the fence about Joanna Newsom. I remember playing “Bridges and Balloons” from The Milk-Eyed Mender once when I was still at KVRX. Her name had been bandied about in hushed, reverent tones by fellow deejays and I had to find out who was causing this kind of fuss. Upon first listen, I promptly thought to myself, “what is this art school pixie nattering on about? Is this some Nell shit? More like Joanna Nuisance.” Immediately after the song finished, a female listener called to thank me for playing the song, espousing its beauty with complete sincerity. Yeesh. Point taken, sister. I took a little more time with Ys, but wasn’t converted.
My flippancy might seem unjustified given my professed adoration for Björk, and I recognize that. Bottom line: I respected that Newsom was a rare talent, but I didn’t get her appeal. In theory, I’m down with Lisa Simpson playing a harp, but actual listening didn’t beget actual enjoyment.
So when I found out Newsom’s long-awaited follow-up would be a triple album, I was like “ho boy, that’s going to be a lot of obscure words and ululating.”
It is, but in a great way.
I’ve since spent the last week listening to her new album, Have One on Me and feel like I need to check back in with Ys. For smart criticism on Have One on Me, I’ll gladly refer you to reviews from Ann Powers, Jonah Weiner, and Mark Richardson. Oscillating almost exclusively between it and Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code, that’s a lot of time with two smart women’s words. It was a week well spent and has carried over into this one. I’m certain that these two albums are the ones I’ll treasure from this year.
One reason I was able to warm up to Have One on Me is because it’s “accessible,” at least comparatively speaking. Some might interpret this as a taming of Newsom’s sound. Her voice is more controlled. Her arrangements, though spare in a way that recalls The Milk-Eyed Mender, are approachable and gorgeous. They even suggest a pop sensibility that gestures toward a potential connection between her and Carole King and Joni Mitchell’s work in the early 70s. I think all of this does a service to what are ultimately straightforward songs about the complexities of adult relationships. She’s not accessible so much as she is direct.
In addition, I think my attitudes toward pretension have changed since I last considered Newsom. I’ve spent some quality time with Kate Bush and Elizabeth Fraser, post-punk’s grand-mères of affectation. Song cycles about drowning? Lyrics pieced together out of gibberish, abstruse terminology, random words, and antiquated names? Hello.
These considerations have prompted me to stretch back toward Mitchell. They’ve led me to reconsider favorites like Björk, PJ Harvey, and Neko Case. I celebrate contemporary artists like Bat For Lashes, Fever Ray, Antony Hegarty, and Julianna Barwick with renewed vigor. I even volley contradictory opinions about Lady Gaga. In fact, after Newsom I should revisit Patti Smith and Tori Amos to see if my opinions of them have changed. I might want to see who this Amanda Palmer person is all about too.
I’m interested in how these artists use pretension for two reasons. For one, I like the effrontery of female musicians whose work seems to bellow, “I’m an artist with a capital A. My music is really important and great. If I need my work to be excessively florid, doggedly conceptual, or sonically challenging, then you can deal. If there was room for prog rock, there’s room for me too. In fact, I am prog rock. No, I have eaten prog rock, along with the book Roan Press published that exalts my genius.”
More to the point, when pretension is used in the service of songs about female experiences, it seems as though there’s potential for the mundane yet particular realities of being female to contain artistry, fantasy, and perhaps even transcendence. In Newsom’s case, as the record is teeming with reflections on motherhood, the pressures of couplehood between creative people, and the struggle for women to maintain autonomy as they mature, the pretensions feel earned.
That said, my threshold for pretension is slanted by my gendered purview. Newsom stretches odes to break-ups, possible abortions, empty rooms, and the West Coast well past the three-minute mark here and I listen. When it’s Decemberists’ leader Colin Meloy, I want to stab him so he’ll quit singing or reaching for his thesaurus. “Forty-winking in the belfry,” indeed.
Of course, while I may approve of female pretension, I also have to check it. Here’s where Annabel Mehran’s album cover seems necessary to consider. Newsom is draped across a chaise, suggesting an archetype in portraiture known as the Odalisque. Strewn about her are knickknacks from a decadent bohemian lifestyle — shawls, rugs, lamps, pelts, stuffed animals, antiques, a peacock.
To me, the image composition most clearly brings to mind Henri Rousseau‘s “The Dream.” Erté may also be an influence, as Newsom is fashioned a bit like his “Scandinavian Queen.” The political implications of these artists’ styles, and their respective involvement with Post-Impressionism and Art Deco should not be overlooked, particularly with regard to race. The former was notorious for its problematic, first-world fetishization of its own notions of primitivism. The latter poached quite a bit from Japanese woodcuts, thus perpetuating Orientalism. Indeed, when you juxtapose Newsom’s alabaster complexion against her exotic surroundings, the racial implications of female pretense become troubling. Who is afforded the time to ruminate? Who gets to lie in repose?
With that said, the cover, like the contents of the album, are beautiful, troubling, and revealing. They demand considerable examination and they’re getting it from at least one listener.