Tagged: The Smiths

Katy Perry’s country heart

Critics are expected to make comparisons. The ability to recognize similarities between people, texts, and ideas is a skill expected of those who observe and write on culture. As music criticism continues to be transformed by post-structuralism, feminism, poptimism, and retromania, a number of writers are praised for articulating a profound connection that seems strained or completely unrelated upon first utterance. What does Taylor Swift have in common with Def Leppard, KISS, Eminem, and Nicki Minaj? Plenty, according to her. What would she have to talk about with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino? Plenty, according to me.

Putting forth these kinds of arguments speaks to contemporary culture’s continued indebtedness to the merging of high and low art that resulted from modernism accidentally rubbing elbows with postmodernism on the train after a sojourn to Warhol’s factory and kind of liking it. It speaks to why my friend Jen hates that Roy Lichtenstein stole from comic books to legitimate panels and pixels for gallery dwellers. It also speaks to why so many Americans are thrilled to see themselves through Mad Men‘s eyes, even if they don’t agree on whether or not the show actually feels like the past.

Music critics love to forge connections between artists across genres. For one, it’s a way for us to show off our eclecticism. Jody Rosen making a comparison between Justin Bieber and Frankie Lymon demonstrates his knowledge of pop history. Me arguing that the Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” is a country song lets some folks know that I understand the group’s connection to Gene Vincent links them to proto-punk bands like Suicide as well as a larger songwriting tradition. It’s also a way for us to launch arguments with one another. But it’s also a way to challenge the definitions of what constitutes a genre by pretending the boundaries around it don’t exist. There’s privilege in trespassing and appropriating, of course. But there’s also the possibility of liberation, particularly from meaningless and oppressive words like “authenticity” and the segregated taste hierarchies they impose.

Paying attention to what songs musical acts decide to cover can be productive when we talk about hybridity, eclecticism, genre, and cultural assumptions. People still tend to be surprised by a cover by a “rock” artist interpreting a “pop” song outside of their genre–even American Idol judges who know Colton Dixon is just copying 30 Seconds to Mars’ take on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”. I was embarrassed when I visited Travis Morrison’s old Web site and listened to his spirited, acoustic version of Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy,” but I knew the Dismemberment Plan well enough to not be surprised by it. I actually prefer Stars’ lounge-y cover of the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” to the original.

When I originally encountered Lisa Robinson’s Vanity Fair cover story on Katy Perry, I rolled my eyes at her comparison between the singer and Dolly Parton. A small part of me was offended–I respect Dolly as a musician and regard Perry as a bad object. My initial response is telling, particularly in how I reverted back to objectification, binarism, and misogyny–feminists are never done unlearning. But I also thought the comparison was super-obvious. Both women became famous for their particular brands of winking hyperfemininity. …And?

Then I listened to Perry’s “The One That Got Away” while waiting in line at Subway one day and was mesmerized by it. What I found especially transfixing was that, if you dulled its electro sheen and slowed it down, I think you’d have a country song. My friend Sarah pointed out that you’d basically have a Taylor Swift song, which challenges my original position on both artists. Here’s what I think makes it feel like a country song.

. . . Actually, I’ll give you a moment to process the age makeup and Diego Luna first.

-The lyric about making out in a Mustang to Radiohead is at once a very specific reference to Perry’s former relationship yet holds universal appeal. It sets the tone for the entire song, which contains references to tattoos, Johnny Cash, and delinquent romance. A hallmark of country songwriting is incorporating minute character details that seem particular to the artist and to millions of listeners.

-The elegant, austere sadness of the song’s melody makes you drop a tear in your beer and gives you the forward momentum to get off your bar stool and sleep it off. The composition is at once simple, yet towering and opulent. It’s as if the song was plated with gold and girded with steel, an abstract description that sounds like a Parton lyric.

-Perry doesn’t have Linda Ronstadt’s vocal abilities. Few do. But the wounded quality to Perry’s voice makes me think of “Blue Bayou” and “You’re No Good”, particularly in the chorus. Listen to the twang she puts on “in another life” to deepen the song’s sense of urgency and romantic ache and her rueful, muted delivery on a lyric like “us against the world,” which is paired with a descending melodic line.

What I’m getting at here is country music is at once clearly defined and not one thing. So it makes sense that Perry performed this song last fall at the American Music Awards in a hot pink getup and matching guitar that looked like Jem landed at the Grand Ol’ Opry (BTW, I’d totally see Perry, Swift, Rihanna, and Jessie J play the Misfits in a live-action film adaptation of Jem and the Holograms). The genre’s defining characteristics are distinct, yet also malleable and permeable. That’s what makes listening to music so much fun, and thinking about it continuously rewarding.

For Kristen, a few weeks ago

A day before leaving my last job, I received a text message from Kristen at Dear Black Woman, that damn near made me do a spit take. It said “blog request: can you pls tell/explain the love for bon iver? particularly white ppls love for the background story of bon iver?”  My reply was “That fucking guy.”

Bon Iver getting in touch with nature and, therefore, himself; image courtesy of stereogum.com

Some of this vitriol isn’t even Justin Vernon’s fault. Frankly, his brand of white boy croonery is too inoffensive to prompt any reaction from me. The same can be said of Fleet Foxes. And while I do like Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles, my fandom isn’t such that I’d staunchly defend them the way I would, say, TV on the Radio or Vampire Weekend or the Dirty Projectors. Nor is my anti-fandom on par with how I feel about Jens Lekman, who does the nervous Woody Allen routine to curry sympathy from women and hides that he looks like a model and is probably a jerk, like Woody Allen. I only opted out of one part of Whip It!, and it’s the pool scene where the couple makes out over a Jens Lekman song. I quite like how Ellen Page’s character cut herself off the line her indie rocker love interest strung her on, but can do without that entire subplot. I kept wondering what the derby girls were up to or if Alia Shawkat was cutting AP Bio to smoke in the bathroom.

This isn’t Lekman’s fault, though. It’s easy to conflate your opinion of a musician with your assumptions about their fanbase. I’m sure lots of chauvinist dudes dismiss Sleater-Kinney as shrill because they’re feminists, which means that all their fans are humorless feminist white women. Thus, we have to take care to separate the work from its popular reception. When I say I don’t like Fleet Foxes, what I actually mean is “if Pitchfork didn’t give their debut Album of the Year status, most people would dismiss them as dad rock for CSNY fans.” When my partner’s dad says he hates Bread, he’s probably reacting against his square older brother and all the schlock he heard in the early 70s when his band was trying to make it. He can’t be reacting against “It Don’t Matter to Me” because that’s a smooth summer groove.

I’d imagine Vernon’s exile resonates with many fans as a sign of authenticity–he was able to write such personal lyrics and deliver them with so much emotion because he led a cloistered life untethered by the modern material world and central heating. That and white people like caring about things. Frankly I’m unmoved by Bon Iver’s origin story, and more than a little suspicious of a white person with the means to retreat. Survivalism came into vogue at the turn of the twentieth century with organizations like the Boy Scouts of America. It may have been intended as a way for boys and men to get in touch with nature, acquire self-sufficiency, and forge intergenerational bonds. I don’t doubt that those lessons continue to be imparted. But it also seems like a neat way for white men to run around in the woods, fetishize a particular kind of masculine ideal, and reconnect with a pioneer spirit while conveniently erasing the racial injustices placed against Native Americans and enslaved people of color. It’s easy to go camping when you don’t have to live in a tent.

I remember back in 2007, when it circulated that Vernon recorded For Emma, Forever Ago in a cabin following his band’s dissolution, an epic break-up, and a bout with mononucleosis, but didn’t seek it out. Look, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote most of Magnolia in Bill Macy’s cabin, too terrified to leave his desk. It doesn’t change that the second hour is a slog, the frog rain is gimmicky but not insufferable, and the Aimee Mann sing along is quite moving. Tom Cruise also gives one of his best screen performances.

People are obsessed with legends and origin stories. If we weren’t, Hollywood wouldn’t continue to exploit this fascination with shitty comic book movie franchises. Likewise, classic albums get integrated into the canon because of surrounding lore and myth-making. Stevie and Lindsey and John and Christine were falling apart during Rumours. Captain Beefheart handed in Trout Mask Replica in six hours. PJ Harvey lived on potatoes during Rid of Me. Kanye recorded “Through the Wire” with his jaw wired shut, which is why he has to Watch the Throne now.

I’m also reacting against the assumption that I would like Bon Iver. I certainly fit his demo–politically liberal, college radio listener, Pitchfork reader, cisgender white lady, alive when Bonnie Raitt swept the Grammys, inclined toward male romantic partners. But I reject the heteronormative assumption that my hypothetical fandom as a white woman would be tied to finding him or his music sexy. When I finally listened to “Skinny Love,” long after Bon Iver signed with Jagjaguwar and he recorded a song with St. Vincent for the Twilight soundtrack, I felt cold, tired, and manipulated. I’m partly reacting against hipster dudes outfitting themselves in rumpled men’s attire that telegraphs fucking in the woods, or at least not copping to Robbie Robertson doing it first with greater success. But the cabin in Northern Wisconsin scenario doesn’t send chills down my spine. Duran Duran recorded a song about getting it on in either an actual or metaphorical Antarctica. It’s not sexy so much as it is deeply embarrassing, though not the most embarrassing song on Liberty.

The Band's Robbie Robertson, back in the day

Part of this contrarianism also informs why I yelled at my TV when Netflix recommends “Independent Features with a Strong Female Lead.” I contain multitudes, Netflix! I don’t want to fit too neatly in a type. But I’m more than a little disconcerted about what that type might say about my race and gender. Just like I don’t want people to think that I believe feminism is predicated on white women’s subjugation of women of color and thus that a movie like The Help would speak to my politics, I bristle at the idea that a nerdy white lady like myself would, by definition, listen to Bon Iver. Or the Smiths. Or Belle and Sebastian. Or the Cranberries. Or that I’d instinctively champion a Miranda July movie, because, as Kristen noted in a post that addressed white lady quirk, where is the black mother of John Hawkes’ children in Me and You and Everyone We Know?

Miranda July, you are not the mother!; image courtesy of jonathanrosenbaum.com

A post on Bon Iver is really a post on whiteness, because over his songs’ crisp acoustic/ambient arrangements, Justin Vernon is articulating a very messy white masculinity. Whiteness has always been at the center of rock music, and frankly it’s hard for me to tell if Vernon’s doing something radically new with collapsing folk and blue-eyed soul. In this supposedly post-racial cultural moment, it’s common for hipster-friendly musical acts to bring the two together. Justin Vernon’s British counterpart is James Blake, a white boy who gets accolades from Pitchfork for bringing his intimate singing style to an of-the-moment electronic subgenre like post-dubstep. It seems robots do cry, most likely to Joni Mitchell records.

Many of Vernon and Blake’s white peers are at home with R&B. Mayer Hawthorne can’t sing worth a damn, but that doesn’t keep him from channeling Curtis Mayfield in his bedroom studio and connecting with a large audience. Jamie Lidell brings soul music’s immediacy into the present, proving himself to be one of the most talented composers and vocalists of his generation in the process. Blake and Lidell also come from a country with a deep, problematic love for black pop music. Jamiroquai wouldn’t exist without Stevie Wonder. Simply Red’s biggest hit was a cover of a song Gamble and Huff originally wrote for Labelle. The Rolling Stones worship Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Solomon Burke. Adele is channeling Dusty Springfield, who in turn was channeling Aretha Franklin.

Lidell was also at home touring with Beck, a full-grown (white) man who’s not afraid to cry or build a bridge between James Brown, Kraftwerk, and countrypolitan. Beck came into cultural relevance in a decade when Jeff Buckley covered Mahalia Jackson, Nirvana covered Leadbelly, the Blues Explosion recorded with R.L. Burnside while being called out as modern-day minstrels, and Radiohead could count Maxwell as a fan. In her essay “The Soft Boys: The New Man in Rock,” Terri Sutton argues that alternative rock was defined by a sensitive, self-reflexive white masculinity, but it also absorbed and appropriated soul, R&B, funk, and other generic expressions associated with black artists.

As Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style suggests, Vernon might set himself apart by having black artists accept him. Kayne West brought him in for “Monster” alongside Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and built “Lost in the World” around “Lost in the Woods.” However, white artists working with artists of color is as old as popular music itself. James Taylor worked with Gilberto Gil. Hall and Oates are embraced by black and white audiences. I believe West’s articulation of a black hipster masculinity, white hipsters’ quasi-ironic, quasi-sincere, deeply nostalgic, and highly performative fan appreciation for quiet storm R&B and new jack swing, and the Internet fostering an uneasy but fascinating integration are the key distinctions.

It speaks to why Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake channeling Color Me Badd for “Dick In a Box” captured so much public attention. It speaks to why a cheesy genre like yacht rock resonates, resulting in Warren G sampling Michael McDonald, Michael McDonald covering Grizzly Bear, and the cult phenomenon of a Web series that imagined the lives of James Ingraham and Loggins and Messina and brought Wyatt Cenac into millions of homes as a Daily Show correspondent. It gets at why I’m thrilled thrilled that any oldies radio format for my generation must include Adina Howard and SWV. It also explains why Bon Iver invokes Howard Jones and Back in the High Life-era Steve Winwood for “Beth, Rest” and it’s not totally left field. And it especially speaks to why Vernon would be involved with Gayngs, a loose assemblage of musicians that includes Andrew Bird and various members of Minnesota-based hip hop collective Doomtree that claims soft rock as its primary influence.

I don’t pretend that Bon Iver will unite a people, any more I can claim that Justin Vernon’s music as my own or that his performance of white masculinity is new or interesting. But parsing out the racial politics of genre hybridization, puzzling through the elision between ironic and sincere fandom and performance, and placing Vernon in that context is better than getting lost in the woods.

Kara Walker, songwriter

Kara Walker at work; image courtesy of walkerart.org

Destroyer’s Kaputt came out last Tuesday. As a longtime fan of Dan Bejar’s main project, I’ve been pretty taken with it since tracks started filtering out late last year. My line about Destroyer is that it’s what English majors should be listening to instead of the Decemberists. That’s as much a glib comparison as it is a cheap shot against a band I actively dislike, especially since they have very little in common besides being led by a nasal-voiced front man with a love for big words. I will allow, however, that I’ve never understood the point of Colin Meloy’s lyrics. To my ears, it exists for its own sake and since I maintain that Meloy rivals Jay Leno as the public figure in possession of the most punchable jaw, I’ll interpret that sake as personal edification. Bejar could be accused of similar things, though his elliptical lyrics and prismatic compositions transfix me. Notice how vast “Rubies” is in its first half, only to drop into disarming intimacy. A symphony folds into a four-track recording. Staggering.

I’m interested in Bejar’s artistic evolution, particularly after Your Blues. Derided in some circles as “the MIDI album”–a reference to the antiquated musical interface used to provide much of the album’s background music–many found this stylistic departure from his guitar-based compositions disconcerting. The rockist panic informing such aversion is pretty funny to me. Your Blues ranks among my favorite Destroyer records and warrants rediscovery. It’s clear with subsequent releases that while he may not have been using successive albums to respond to previous ones, he was building on certain ideas. Your Blues hardly sounds like a departure in context. The most reductive connection between Your Blues and Kaputt is that he’s channeling another outdated era of pop music production–one Mark Richardson places between 1977 and 1984, at the height of soft rock, smooth jazz, and new romantic pop. But Bejar’s always been interested in toying with outre musical ideas. Destroyer’s shimmering guitar lines recall 70s AOR staples like Bread and America, so his attempts at something we might call ambient yacht rock shouldn’t come as any surprise. Also, as an Electronic fan, I’m tickled that the New Order/Pet Shop Boys/Smiths’ side project is one of the album’s main musical reference points.

But what does come as something of a (pleasant) surprise to me is artist Kara Walker‘s presence on Kaputt. I had the privilege of seeing her My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love exhibit in 2008 at the Modern in Fort Worth. It remains my most disquieting spectatorial experience. Walker is best known for recasting Antebellum-era silhouette cutouts in cinematic tableaux to reinterpret America’s ongoing racist history (she also gets a shout-out in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic”). Nightmarish visions of sexual violence and abjection twine with surrealist and sensual imagery that sneak up on you once you look past cultural associations with silhouette portraiture’s feminized gentility. That I saw this after looking at an Impressionist exhibit–and walking through the gift shop–at the nearby Kimbell Museum only put the vitality of the exhibit in sharper relief. There’s no way one of her murals could make it onto an umbrella.

Kara Walker's "Endless Conundrum, An African Anonymous Adventuress" (2001); image courtesy of walkerart.org

Perhaps related to serving as a curator for Merge Records’ retrospective, Walker contributed lyrics to “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” so named as a reference to the proto-punk duo. She wrote several charged phrases onto cue cards and Bejar sang them, rearranging and embellishing some passages. It’s easily my favorite song on the record, though I’m disquieted as to why. Ann Powers recently offered some insights into their collaborative effort, noting their shared interest in appropriation. Bejar has been compared to Leonard Cohen, particularly his detached narration of hedonistic tales. Soft rock’s seductive qualities–the backlit production, the reliance on 7th chords–disquiet in their efforts to soothe and drip sophistication, especially when Bejar whispers lines like “New York City just wants to see you naked and they will,” “wise, old, black, and dead in the snow,” “All that slender-wristed, white, translucent business passes for love these days,” and “Don’t talk about the South, she said.” Kaputt also prominently features vocalist Sibel Thrasher. In the context of this song, her presence calls into question the role many black female vocalists held as background singers for artists like Simply Red. 

Cohen also comes to mind when we talk about reinterpretation. Many folks who’ve heard “Hallelujah” might attribute Jeff Buckley, but the song originated with Cohen (actually, Buckley’s version is a cover of a cover, as he cribbed John Cale’s reading of it). So what happens when lyrics are drafted by an African American woman whose words are then reinterpreted by a white Canadian man frolicking in the studio? Who does it belong to? Frankly, I’m not sure. I’m inclined to rule that it belongs to both of them and to the listener. What I know for certain is that this song is stuck on repeat.

2010: The year Alyx fell in love with the Cocteau Twins

The Cocteau Twins (left to right): Robin Guthie, Elizabeth Fraser, and Simon Raymonde (drum machine not pictured); image courtesy of wikimedia.org

Last week, I did a quick round-up of some new releases I’ve enjoyed. In that post, I mentioned that upon occasion friends and acquaintances familiar with my blog will ask what I’m listening to. When they ask this question, the tacit assumption I make is that they want to discuss current recording artists. There’s always a few up-and-comers I champion, but any time someone asks “who are you listening to” it’s usually an older act I’m investigating. This year, if you asked “what are you listening to” my answer is “the Cocteau Twins.”

At this point, it’s hardly incendiary to proclaim oneself a fan of the long-defunct Scottish dream pop act. For one, there’s not much to hate. It seems detractors profess indifference rather than contempt, deeming their music pleasant but inconsequential. The worst insult I’ve heard was that there’s little difference between their sound and the pan-global efforts of 4AD labelmates Dead Can Dance and new age artists like Enya and Enigma. These artists sound good as background noise at a bougie dinner party. Pass the quinoa.

Though their releases always clutter discount bins — no doubt jewels from the reject piles of former high school goth kids’ CD collections — contemporary acts like M83, Warpaint, Phantogram, School of Seven Bells, Sleep Over, and even Linkin Park cite their influence. While folks like Madonna and David Lynch noted their interest in the band early on, it’s only recently become “fashionable” to like them. In 2005, there was unsubstantiated talk of a reunion at Coachella. In 2008, the band received a Q Award for their contributions to popular music, a rare accolade Fraser noted for an otherwise undecorated band.

In the past few years, I’ve entered into more conversations with people who like them, along with the work band members vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, guitarist-producer Robin Guthrie, and bassist Simon Raymonde did with This Mortal Coil, especially Fraser and Guthrie’s contributions on It’ll End in Tears. Like M83’s Anthony Gonzalez, a lot of us are in are 20s and too young to directly experience the group’s 80s heyday. So I’m going to guess many of us came to our fandom through other portals, perhaps exploring the reference Patton Oswalt makes in his bit about KFC bowls in Werewolves in Lollipops or listening to the haunting score Guthrie and composer Harold Budd created for Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin.

I first remember hearing Cocteau Twins on the radio in 1994. The song I heard was “Bluebeard,” the lead single to their penultimate album Four Calendar Café. I liked it fine and noticed they already enjoyed a long career. I suspected Sarah McLachlan might be a fan based on songs like “Fear” and “Vox,” the latter of which was originally released on her 1988 debut Touch but received some airplay following the success of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I seem to recall that she opened for the band at some point during this time, but can’t confirm this.

In 1998, I remember hearing Fraser on Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” which may be where many fans in my peer group first heard her. The song is still mesmerizing to me and continues to appeal to others. House incorporated the song as its theme, though regrettably without Fraser’s vocals. Friday Night Lights used José González’s cover this season to underscore a heartbreaking scene where Matt Saracen learns of an unexpected death in his family. I later found out that Fraser was recording the song when she heard that her one-time confidant Jeff Buckley drowned. Fraser considered the song as something of a tribute.  

During graduate school, I read Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’s nebulous The Sex Revolts, wherein Fraser’s opaque vocals were linked the womb and the abject. As with much of that book, I wished the authors limited their focus to something less amoebic than gender fuckery in popular music and didn’t crutch so heavily on Gilles Deleuze to support their claims.

I highlight these points to emphasize that the Cocteau Twins were in my periphery for some time, but only recently a band I claimed for my own. I knew of them, but felt their catalog and devoted fan base to be rather intimidating. I started actively listening to them in winter 2008, primarily because Bat for Lashes, Gang Gang Dance, and M83’s “80s album” garnered comparisons. I liked what I heard (I went with 1984’s Treasure as a starting point), but then went about my business. But earlier this year, I reinvigorated a long-dormant obsession with Jeff Buckley. Out of feminist disdain for having a male musician occupy my mind, I turned toward the female musicians in his life. I listened a bit to Rebecca Moore and Joan Wasser’s work, but the Cocteau Twins left a more immediate impression. I dove back into Treasure and went deeper into Blue Bell Knoll, Head Over Heels, Aikea-Guinea, Love’s Easy Tears, Victorialand, and Heaven or Las Vegas. I’m still “in it” and see no reason why you shouldn’t be plunging the leagues with me.

Like many, I was taken by Fraser’s voice. A lover of Björk, Kate Bush, and Siouxsie Sioux, who Fraser recalls in her lower register, I champion beautifully strange female voices. Fraser’s dramatic style is often dialogued with her lyrics, which are usually inscrutable and laced with references to obscure words, gibberish, and slang endemic to the band’s origins (i.e.: “aikea-guinea” is a Scottish term for “seashell”). Though seemingly nonsensical, many fans embue meaning in their attempts to decode what Fraser is singing. But I concur with Jason Ankeny that what makes Fraser’s mouth music resonate with listeners is her emphasis on “the subjective sounds and textures of verbalized emotions.”

This speaks to Fraser’s ability to subvert language, project strength, and demonstrate control, qualities for which I don’t think she gets enough credit. Critics pay particular attention toward her voice’s beauty. Indeed, Fraser possesses an opera singer’s virtuosity, chewing on words’ dexterity, skipping through complex rhythms, and leaping octaves and strange intervals. But her work tends to be described as “ephemeral,” “ethereal”, or “gossamer” to ultimately argue its frillery as being conventionally feminine. But I think there’s something to be said for a woman who writes indeciferable lyrics to songs with names like “Cico Buff,” “Sugar Hiccup,” and “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” and taps wells of emotion using these words. It could be profoundly embarrassing for both the singer and the listener, but Fraser finds the pith surrounding emotions’ ultimate intangibility.

But as this year for me is also defined by picking up a guitar, Guthrie’s contributions cannot be overstated. Fraser created a vocal style a host of UK female artists would come to emulate. Similarly, Guthrie rivals few beyond The Smiths’ Johnny Marr in the cultivation of a distinct guitar sound for its time that many would later attempt to replicate. This is evident in how younger artists on 4AD like Lush called upon Guthrie to produce their albums, no doubt aware of and indebted to the Twins’ involvement in forging a distinct pop sensibility for the label. I think it’s also noticable in Kevin Shields’ work. While some like to suggest My Bloody Valentine’s blissful, feedback-laden guitar drone and androgynous vocals were created in a vacuum, I suspect the band took notes on the Twins composing and recording processes.

Guthrie’s guitar sound also speaks to me directly. As a guitar player, I have little interest in the monster riff foolwangery many nurture when they pick up a Fender Stratocaster in the hopes of becoming Stevie Ray Vaughn. Instead, I like how the guitar can be used to conjure atmosphere and mood, however fleeting or mutable. Like Guthrie, I’m also a fan of seventh chords, which destabilize the triad and create a sense of irresolution. Thus this music tends to shift expectations of how it’s supposed to sound, requiring listeners to pay attention in order to process superficially beautiful but compositionally complex music. I suppose this sense of mastery ultimately puts Guthrie in the position of guitar god, though his indifference toward conventional melody and reliance on Fraser’s voice, Raymonde’s sleepy bass, and an omnipresent Roland 808 potentially shift expectations of the band’s sound and his role in helping create it.

We could dwell on Fraser and Guthrie’s former relationship, the daughter they share, his former dependence on heroin and alcohol,  the couple’s estrangement, and the band’s disintegration. I’m not especially interested in it, however. But like many UK post-punk acts, I am fascinated in how the band developed such a dreamy sound out of their surroundings. In the documentary Made in Sheffield, Human League frontman Phil Oakey talked about his band’s desire to break away from the tedium of work with the hope of maybe making it onto the Top of the Pops.

I’ve never been to Grangemouth, but I’d anticipate its distinction of housing a large petrochemical plant speaks to post-war industrialism and the assumption that its citizenry would work at the factories and refineries. A trio of spotty kids opting to spin gorgeous, incoherent post-punk inside a basement with their eyes toward heaven? I think it’s worth remembering.

SXSW Day 4 and 5 recap

More like SXSWTFit’s cold! Remember how I mentioned earlier that you should opt for comfort over fashion during the festival? I really ate my words on Saturday. It was in the 40s and windy, but I thought I could brave the weather wearing a peasant skirt I converted into a sundress paired with a cardigan, pleather jacket, and tights. I was very wrong.

Wye Oak – My partner and I checked out their show at the Galaxy Room’s outside stage. This is the third time I’ve seen the Baltimore-based duo and they get better and louder and more sonically interesting each time I see them.

After that, we grabbed spicy lamb kebabs at Kebabalicious, which made the wait to get into the Mohawk more tolerable. When we got in, some power pop group was wrapping up their set outside.

Dum Dum Girls – They played inside and were fine. Much in the vein of Vivian Girls.

Demolished Thoughts – This is a supergroup with Thurston Moore and J. Mascis (Andrew WK was billed, but absent). Awww, dad’s got a punk band. Because he is in Sonic Youth and his band mate led Dinosaur Jr., he gets to play outside at the Mohawk. He sings songs about adolescent disaffection that he scrawled in a notebook, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Kim is bemused. Coco is embarrassed.

Rye Rye – She takes it back to block parties and Roxanne Shanté 45s. And I was a mere few feet away from Ms. Ryeisha Berrain, who was flanked by two male back-up dancers who sported leather jackets and tank tops that said “Rye.” It’s always nice to see cocky, bubbly girls having fun and I’ve been having fun with her since my neighbor Rosa-María brought “Shake It to the Ground” into my life.

Broken Bells – Obviously the Danger Mouse/James Mercer collaboration drew a lot of attention. They played several shows to maximum capacity crowds. And good for them. But it’s only okay to me — give me Brian Burton’s collaborations with Cee-Lo Green and Damon Albarn over pleasant 60s power pop that basically sounds exactly like The Shins (and a little like The Dandy Warhols) any day.

After that, I kind of hit a wall because I was cold and therefore cranky. Kinda paid attention to Real Estate’s set inside.

The Black Keys – They got a late start and it was effin’ cold outside but still well worth it. I’ve never seen the Akron duo and they were killer.

From there I had to change clothes. On the way downtown, we ran into our friend Jessalyn, who was feeling the chill too. When Canadians think it’s cold, I feel quite validated. We headed back over to Frank where we saw Hector, a fellow KVRX alum, and those nice folks we met from KALX yesterday. Glad they got to find out the magic that is Austin’s artisan sausage haven. We also saw Irene from The Real World: Seattle, who I think walked past me right as I was explaining her “celebrity” to my partner. A similar incident happened with Emily Mortimer in New Orleans last spring. Both ladies gave me a bit of a stink eye.

YellowFever – Back at the Mohawk. I’ve actually never seen this Austin duo before, but have liked them for quite a while. Lovely sound, warmed my bones a bit.

Total Abuse – Noise band that played over at Barbarella. Something tells me they’ve listened to The Jesus Lizard. Especially the lead singer, who was working quite a crazy eye.

Kings Go Forth – Back at Galaxy. Ten-piece Midwestern funk ensemble who have clearly spent time listening to Curtis Mayfield and Earth Wind and Fire. Pretty fun, though looser than, say, Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings. Also, I wonder how they will be marketed. Because I saw lots of cool kids at the show, but the band is itself pretty uncool. You know, they’re mainly paunchy older dudes in tunics. I don’t have a problem with it — as a matter of fact, it’s kind of nice that some older musicians are getting attention from younger people. I’m just curious as to how their image will be spun. That said, there were a lot of older people there too. If ever there was a band I saw that I could recommend to just about anyone, this’d be the group.

Oooh, and speaking of older people, this one grandpa in a sport coat and cap got me real mad! As I noticed with several acts at SXSW, Kings Go Forth played their best-known hit, “One Day,” at the end of their set so as to avoid a mass exodus of dabblers. When the band said they had one last song, Pappy rushed the stage and yelled “ONE DAY!” which of course they played. But this jackass started gyrating and trying to get people to dance with him like he didn’t just order the band to play a song. Ugh. They aren’t your monkeys, old man.

Tried to see Best Coast back at Barbarella, but had a feeling we should return to Mohawk in anticipation of a big turnout for Death at 1 a.m. Sure enough, the venue was at capacity . . . for Surfer Blood. Ya’ll, I know they’re a big buzz band and I was pleasantly surprised that anyone could form a band in West Palm Beach, but I was unimpressed. One minute they sounded like The Smiths, then the The Shins, and their hit sounds like The Offspring covering Big Country. Ho hum. Lots of people came only for their set, including MTV VJ/walking exoskeleton John Norris.

Once Surfer Blood wrapped up, we got in to see Dâm-Funk, which was totally worth it. His voice was great, the band was tight and, as the kid next to me texted to a friend, “the mother fucker had a keytar.” I’m sure a lot of folks got pregnant after his set.

And then . . .

Death – I was stoked that they played Fun Fun Fun Fest, and I’m still excited. These guys were making this music in Detroit in the mid-70s before punk officially happened and long before it merged with funk. And they’re still killing it and keeping it positive and politically conscious at the same time. Just sayin’.

On Sunday, we met up with our friends Karin and Jacob to see Jacob’s friends’ band RICE at Beerland for Panache‘s post-SXSW showcase. Good screamy fun from the West Coast by way of the East Coast. We also saw Screens, who I liked a lot. Then we ended the night at Emo’s to see the way ruling Paradise Titty play another rousing show.

Unfortunately, there were plenty of shows I missed. However, I’m excited that I saw so many female artists and yet missed these acts: YACHT, The Coathangers, Grass Widow, Talk Normal, The xx, Psalm One, and Invincible. And while I wish that damn highway didn’t divide the town, I think I got to see a lot of great shows. Please feel free to share your thoughts on SXSW 2k10 and we’ll do it again next spring.

Why I pulled out my college radio mixtapes

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.

Covered: Sleater-Kinney’s “The Hot Rock”

Welcome to a new decade, readers. I was wracking my brain for what the first post of the teens should be yesterday. It should be something substantial and prescient in big capital letters. But that puts a lot of pressure on a person. As a result, I backed away from my laptop and got a little bit of much-needed post-New Year’s Eve napping. I also burrowed deeper in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which I felt I needed to finish before I could think about anything else anyway.

But now that I finished the book and am heart-broken over tragic Laura Chase, let’s ease into my first entry of the new decade by writing about an album that came out in 1999.

Cover of The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars, 1999); image courtesy of wikipedia.org

This album came out my sophomore year of high school, but I didn’t listen to it until I was in college. I knew of Sleater-Kinney because magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin paid lip service to them. Later in high school, I heard some of their earlier hits on KTRU (you know, “Words and Guitar,” “Little Babies,” “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”). But I never really had my adolescent Sleater-Kinney feminist music geek phase like a lot of my contemporaries, probably because I was listening to Björk, Liz Phair, Cibo Matto, Erykah Badu, and PJ Harvey instead.

I would’ve made a little more room on my CD shelves, but I don’t actually remember seeing a Sleater-Kinney album in a record store until I was in college. The first cover I saw was All Hands on the Bad One. But the second one I saw was this one, and I’ve stared at it a lot more.

The Hot Rock is also my favorite Sleater-Kinney record, though The Woods and One Beat nudge for top ranking. Part of the reason might be that I felt like I discovered it. While I obviously hadn’t, I’d never heard any songs off this album until I was doing my own radio show. I wonder if this has anything to do with it being poorly received upon initial reception, as many bristled at the band smoothing over its once rawer sound (though I know at least one person who would disagree with that opinion). I also seem to remember some folks derisively referring to it as their “dance” record. But its dancability was a huge part of the record’s appeal for me.

It also let me know that they must be Joy Division and New Order fans. Listen to Brownstein and Tucker’s guitars on “End of You” or “Get Up” and tell me that they’re not doing their version of guitarist Bernard Sumner and bassist’s Peter Hook interplay.

This was really important for me. New Order ruled much of my adolescence, along with Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Erasure, The Pet Shop Boys, and Electronic (Sumner’s side project with Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant and Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr). Before I heard The Hot Rock, I liked Sleater-Kinney fine but felt that their interests in classic rock like The Who and Led Zeppelin, while interesting in terms of gender, gave me little to relate to musically. But this album made me think, sing at the top of my lungs, and dance my ass off.

Speaking of dancing your ass off, feel free to listen to one of their last shows, courtesy of NPR.

Also, I gotta give the ladies credit for setting the stage for what was to come. By 2004, people wanted to give credit to bands like The Rapture for creating dance-punk. I think Sleater-Kinney beat them to it, and managed to sound less dated in the process. They also gestured toward a band that I think had a continued impact on the music of this decade. At the beginning of the decade, a lot of people thought the key indie rock influence was going to be Gang of Four, but every third band I hear these days swipes from either Joy Division or New Order. How’s that for prescient?

Okay, I think there’s some of Gang of Four’s clangy electric guitar on this album too. “Memorize Your Lines” is one example I’ll offer.

But I can’t think of this album without poring over Marina Chavez’s cover photo, studying these three tough, professional ladies. Brownstein’s hailing a taxi to drive them to some unforeseen destination that I always imagine is the gig. Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss haul their gear and glance furtively at something outside the frame, ready to protect the unit from any unseemly element that doesn’t recognize that they’re not with the band but rather, they are the band. Wherever they’re going, they’re getting there together and splitting the cab fare. It’s as strong a feminist message of band solidarity and as hopeful a symbol of the untraveled road as I can find, and a gift I hope to share with you readers as we all embark on a new year together.