A few weeks back, Sabrina Chap (born Chapadijiev) contacted me to see if I wanted to review her new album, Oompa! Never one to turn down a free meal from female musicians, I obliged and she mailed me a copy (with a hand-written letter, no less — thanks, Sabrina!). While the item was in transit, Kjerstin Johnson at Bitch reviewed it for B-Sides.
Having not heard Chap before, the article gave me a good idea of what I’d be listening to. The cabaret sensibility of “Never Been a Bad Girl” suggested Dresden Dolls (though not Evelyn Evelyn’s super-problematic crip drag) on first listen, as well as Inara George and Jolie Holland in louder moments. The emphasis on classical and ragtime instrumentation also recalled Squirrel Nut Zippers’ dedication to jump blues, jazz, polka, and swing. Both the Zippers and beloved Austin mainstay White Ghost Shivers have cultivated antiquated aural aesthetics to undermine nostalgia with biting observations, sly asides, and at times bawdy lyrics about the realities of modern life. Finally, Chap also seems to share similar feminist camp sensibilities with fellow New York-based retro revisionists Menage à Twang. I haven’t heard Chap on KOOP’s “What’s a Girl to Do” program, but I think she’d be a perfect fit.
I don’t offer these artists up to slight Chap as derivative, but rather to put her in a larger context of artists. I believe Chap’s talents stand up on their own. I’m also interested in pursuing her written work. She’s penned some plays and edited a ‘zine called Cliterature. She also edited Live Through This, an anthology about women who use art to work through self-destructive tendencies. The book contains interviews from Nan Goldin, bell hooks, Inga Muscio, Kate Bornstein, Eileen Myles, and Annie Sprinkle. That’s a helluva dinner party.
Most of Oompa! charmed me. The songwriting is sharp, the melodies are catchy, and Chap’s band possess the sort of musical precision that allows them to really swing. I especially liked the self-effacing opening track “Blueprint for Destruction,” idyllic “Carolina,” reflective “Illinois,” spunky “Never Been a Bad Girl,” and the uncertain but defiantly optimistic “Boat Song,” which closes the album. “Failed Waitress/Failed Astronaut” may rank as my favorite track, as it turns the all-too-relateable subject matter of being college educated yet maligned by limited career prospects into a fun little jig. The slinky “Idiom,” which documents a clandestine hook-up with a sexy female stranger, is a close second.
Unfortunately, there are two songs on Oompa! that I can do without. “Little White House” brings to mind the nuclear family idyll espoused in Little Shop of Horrors‘ “Somewhere That’s Green,” which feminist-minded pop stars like Paula Cole critiqued in “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” I’m of the mind that Chap is doing similar work here, as the minor key and stately pace suggest compromised expectations. However, much like I felt with “Cowboys,” it’s hard for me to not hear this song as being condescending to its subject. I also cringe when I hear “Ze Paris Song,” a song about a tourist trying to fit in with her surroundings while eating baguettes and brie as she reflects on the tragic men who love her and eschews the Eiffel Tower. That Chap delivers it in a put-on accent doesn’t help matters. Much like “House,” I believe Chap is being critical here. The results just rub me the wrong way.
Yet despite those minor grievances, I’d still recommend Oompa! Give it a spin on the ol’ Victrola.
First off, the official launch of the music festival was laced with sadness. It was reported yesterday that Alex Chilton of Big Star and The Box Tops died of a heart attack in New Orleans. That Big Star was going to be playing this Saturday is not to be overlooked. And on a personal note, we just got my partner’s dad to start listening to Big Star last week, as he missed them the first time around.
While Big Star is still somewhat obscure, their influence can’t be denied. While some may have never heard of the band, their music has seeped into the pop lexicon. Cheap Trick’s cover of “In the Street” was the theme to That 70s Show. “Thirteen” has been covered by just about everyone, Elliott Smith’s version a highlight in what I found to be an otherwise disappointing Thumbsucker.
My personal favorite is a brief moment in Adventureland when James and Em have an exchange about her copy of Radio City (dig that iconic cover, then recognize that photographer William Eggleston is responsible for awesome album art).
But the impact they had on other artists is astounding. Smith, R.E.M., Yo La Tengo, Garbage, Wilco — basically what became alternative rock was directly influenced by this Memphis outfit. I found out about Big Star via Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Kanga Roo,” which was often his set closer. As a result, I knew who The Replacements were singing about in “Alex Chilton” and where The Bangles got “September Gurls” from.
In short Chilton will be missed, but at least we have his beautiful music.
Now, onto the festivities.
So I got to the TerrorBird showcase a little after 4:30, in time to see a student I work with at GRCA walk out of Red 7. Pretty sure when I got there, Toro Y Moi pack up. Apparently, according to my friends, Chaz Bundick was pretty boring. I was afraid of this. As much of this chillwave is “just” some dude plinking on instruments and playing samples in his bedroom, I’d imagine that it’s hard to make this music presentational. I might try to check him out again at the festival or later. I really like Causers of This.
Real Estate – Last show I saw of the TerrorBird showcase. I’ll be candid – I thought this band was really boring on record. I was like “yeah, so the slow, dreamy parts of Daydream Nation. I kinda like member Matt Mondanile’s solo project Ducktails okay . . . next.” So I was pleasantly surprised to find that I liked their set. I really got a sense of how the band interacted and an appreciation for their sound. I will point out, though, that if the musical contributions of the ‘teens will be something of a 90s revival, Real Estate indicate how influential jam bands were to indie touchstones like Pavement.
I wasn’t really into seeing A Sunny Day in Glasgow and The Rural Alberta Advantage. You know, I’m a working lady who walked down to the Red River scene from work and had an empty belly. Went to Frank and packed away the Smoked Andouille. Goin’ in for a repeat on Friday.
Denitia Odigie – Trekked over to the Garden Inn Hilton to some dining area. Eh, her set was aight. I heard a song of her’s and was interested. My partner’s assessment of the music was that it was perfect for a contemplative moment on Friends and I think that’s accurate (I’m specifically thinking of one of the many scenes where Ross or Rachel are looking out of a rainy window). She’d be an ideal candidate for the VH1 artist to watch series. It’s not that it’s bad, so much as pleasant but forgettable. There was one song she did about waiting for a lover to show on Saturday night that I thought was good and had an interesting guitar line. Maybe she just needs more snarl in her sound.
The Strange Boys – Couldn’t get in to Emo’s because for some reason there was a crazy long line, possibly for Basia Bulat. There wasn’t anyone we were dying to see, so we decided to idle over at Palm Door before Wanda Jackson’s set.
The Low Lows – Remember how I recommended earlier that festival goers welcome surprises? Here’s an example. Didn’t know about this group at all. Didn’t even know they were local. But dude, so good. This band would make a hell of an opening act for Castanets or Calexico. Spare melodies on guitar, keys, and I believe I saw a mellotron, with the volume and reverb ramped to eleven. Haunting high harmonies. A brass quartet. Sold.
Wanda Jackson and the Green Corn Revival – Kind of a no-brainer, especially since I’ve lived in Austin for so long but never made it out for any of her birthday concerts. Unfortunately the show will also be remembered as the moment where some dude behind me at The Village Voice confirmed for my friends that Alex Chilton had died, which he discovered via his iPhone. Fortunately the show will also be remembered as the time we met back up with our friend Allison, who we previously saw at the TerrorBird showcase. Jackson’s band, a ringer from Jackson’s home state of Oklahoma, had some issues. I also think Jackson’s Daisy Rock guitar gave her some sound and tuning problems. But she’s a legend and her hellcat voice is still in fine form. Plus I like Southern women who wear red fringe pantsuits. I hope we carry these traditions on to future generations of grand dames, especially ones who cover Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” While I always feel a little like heritage artists are at the risk of pandering when they cover contemporary music (i.e., Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”), they also remind you of their artistry and originality in these moments. Without Jackson’s legacy, Winehouse couldn’t be a rock n’ roll bad girl. And for those of you who wanted to hear “Fujiyama Mama,” last night, here you go.
Afterward, we went to Best Wurst. Ya’ll, I’m sad to say that I’ve never eaten a dog from the downtown staple. Had a few bites from Allison, and will thus impart how you should order yours: beef dog with grilled onions, sauerkraut, and curry ketchup. You won’t be disappointed.
Dâm-Funk – I’m gonna try checking him out again. The showcase at Speakeasy was promising, as is any bill that features him, Peanut Butter Wolf, Egon, and Madlib. And the set-up was actually pretty interesting, as all of the artists were deejaying round robin-style. The song selection also suggested to me that the 90s revival is going to involve revisiting and reclaiming cheesy, quiet storm R&B, which I’m fine with (RJD2 anticipated this in 2003 with his overlooked Lobster and Scrimp mix, as well as certain cuts on 2007’s The Third Hand). Good set, and saw a mutual friend on the KOOP softball team. My only problem was the venue. The Speakeasy is a bit labyrinthine. There’s actually three different stages within the club that I know of. Went to the roof, then downstairs before stumbling upon the showcase in the mezzanine. And the space was cramped and had poor air ventilation. No good.
We tried to catch the end of Sharon Jones’ set for NPR at Stubb’s with the intent of sticking around for Broken Bells. Impossible. Line around the block. Who knew this supergroup had such a hold on people? Perhaps people have heard of this band Spoon who were next on the bill as well? Kept walking over to Club Deville, where we ran into a friend from KVRX and my partner’s high school bestie and his girlfriend.
Bowerbirds – Okay, these kids harshed my mellow. Granted, I was already tired at this point and am currently in denial about a cold I hope I don’t catch. This band is great on record. And I hope they get to open for The Swell Season or maybe even lead singer Phil Moore’s idol Joanna Newsom. But the band committed a cardinal sin at SXSW: worrying too much about set-up. The band incorporates instruments like the accordion, mandolin, and violin with acoustic guitar and drums, and they wasted far too much time futzing with their mics. If you can’t get the mandolin miked just right, leave it aside for now. This is SXSW and some loud rock band is drowning you out. And complaining about the sound and your performance detracts what was otherwise a lovely selection of songs that beautifully highlighted Moore’s clear tenor and Beth Tacular’s airy harmonies. Save it for a proper concert. They were so behind that they ate into a half hour of Califone’s set. We were tired, so we went home. Didn’t even try and sneak into Warpaint’s set at Emo’s Jr. or venture to The Phoenix to see if Flying Lotus translates in a live setting. What did I miss?
I anticipate today being a bigger event. Explode Into Colors, Phantogram, and Jean Grae are to be seen, along with Drawlings, The Besnard Lakes, Mountain Man, Wye Oak, and many others. May also try to sneak in and see a bit of Golden Triangle’s set and the Liars’ day show. And of course, as Kristen at Act Your Age also mentioned, the GRCA day show is on Friday at Cafe Mundi. I’ll be there and I see no reason why you shouldn’t be too.
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.
So, I’m still a little brain-drained from working on Cinemakids this weekend. I helped a group of nine-year-olds make a short movie about skatin’ dudes and pie fights (or, more accurately, walked them through the basics of making their own movie, tried to keep them positive and focused, sometimes mediated arguments, and sometimes provided them with Oreos). It was fun and if you want to see the movie “Team I Want Some Pie” made, along with the other participants, the screening is on November 7th.
And sometimes being a little brain-drained is good. It’s inspiring. And because today is Monday and we might all be a little slow getting back into our weekly routine, I thought I’d make a quick list of rad stuff I’m stoked about or inspired by. Feel free to share your rad lists as well.
Sadie Benning. Thanks to grad school and Kill Rock Stars, I know who this is. Benning is my go-to “girl filmmaker,” however essentializing that term may be. But I kept thinking about her work all weekend and how, if you have a vision and a Fisher-Price camera, you can start making movies at any age (an experimental filmmaker parent may also help, but not necessarily guarantee inspiration). If you don’t know her work, I highly recommend looking at some of her shorts. You can also watch her work in Julie Ruin’s “Aerobicide” music video.
On that tip, Molly Schiot has made some great videos too. Might I point you in the direction of Mika Miko’s “Business Cats” and Sleater-Kinney’s “Entertain”? Also watch the interview footage Schiot put together of Pat Place and Cynthia Sley of Bush Tetras talking about being tuff feminists on the lower East Side in the early 80s. This interview plus a recent screening of Downtown ’81 convinces me that I’m not tough enough to have lived in New York and the early 80s, and neither are most people of my generation. These women lived “Too Many Creeps.”
Oh hai Jane Campion. I’m looking forward to seeing Bright Star. Additional points of interest for apparently configuring Fanny Brawne as a proto-punk fashion icon.
Karen O, music supervisor of Where The Wild Things Are. How is Spike Jonze’s new movie not going to be awesome? Regardless, I know the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman’s musical contributions to the movie will necessitate its own post. Can’t wait for it to come out!
The Gossip are coming to ATX next month, two days after Parton’s box set is released. Yet another reason why October is for winners. We can only hope that Beth will pull out the wig and cover some Dolly.
I missed Mad Men last night because I was cheering on the KOOP Kilowatts. I suspect others may have missed last night’s episode too due to the Emmys (or at least had to back-and-forth it). Regardless, apparently Betty and Don’s angsty eldest daughter Sally discards a Barbie doll her mom gives her in last night’s episode. Ugh, you totally don’t get my ten-year-old girl needs, mom. Season three has been Sally’s season, in my mind.
Oh, on that tack, I need to rewatch season two and see the documentary on women’s liberation that was included in the DVD set. For more on the subject, Mary Kearney just wrote a great Flow column on it. I wonder how Sally will be impacted by these changes.
I recently bought Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love at Cheapo. Yes, that does mean that I listened to “The Big Sky” on my drive to work.
I have been pairing this with Julie Ruin’s “Valley Girl Intelligensia,” bringing us back full circle to grrrl germs.