Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Reigning Sound and Owls

I was introduced to an album this week I wish I had when it came out in 2002, the Reigning Sound's "Time Bomb High School." Pulling influence from common garage sources like the famed "Nuggets" box set and vintage R 'n' B, the Reigning Sound rock with the soul and fury enjoyed by Fender-wielding outcasts for decades, armed with nothing but a van, Jim Beam and amplication.

And they're from Memphis, only adding more cred to the grit-and-grease harmonies and smokey vocals. Fans of anything from the Greenhornes, White Stripes, Rolling Stones or the golden voices of Stax Records would probably enjoy the Reigning Sound.

The album begins with a cover of "Stormy Weather," a lead off track a bit on-the-nose for a band who finds influence where it does, but lead singer Greg Cartwright, formerly of '90s noise-rockers the Oblivians, quickly wins over the listener with songwriting and vocals occasionally reminescent of the throaty-yell of the Replacements' Paul Westerberg. That intersection of college rock, indie punk and the super sounds of the '50s and '60s has been a winning, and often common combination in the early 2000's, when the nontrend of the "the" bands were supposed to save Rock 'n' Roll. The Reining Sound thankfully never caught that wave, which may have been kind to their pocket books, but unfair to a band with real heart and soul.

The album was included in the AV Clubs decade-end "Orphans" list, aka albums left off the best-of-the-decade list that individual AVClub music writers had a particular affinity for. This list was in many ways more interesting than the official list crammed with albums we all know and love but have been reading about in year-end lists for a decade.

Another under-the-radar record on the list was the eponymous 2001 debut and only album by Chicago outift Owls. Sinewy guitars that snake in and out of sneaky drum patterns are the immediate attraction, but Pavement fans should immediatly hear Malkmus's influence in the lead vocalist's charmingly languorous approach to singing that somtimes obscures the knotty lyrical puzzles.

It's gonna be cold outside and warm as hell in my recliner (UPDATED 11/27)

Early 2010 looks to be a great time for music fans. Spoon will continue its current four-album winning streak with "Transference," Vampire Weekend will try to avoid the sophomore slump with "Contra" and LCD Soundsystem will drop his follow up to 2007's mind blowing "Sound of Silver" on unworthy boys and girls.

Get yr credit cards ready, as I'm sure you'll all be buying each of these in CD, digipack, vinyl, cassette, 8-track and sheet music in valiant efforts to singlehandedly save the recording industry.

Yeasayer will follow its terrific 2007 debut with "Odd Blood." The album's lead single "Ambling Alp" (and it's awesome, surrealistic video) shows a new electronic take on the band's sci-fi tribe sound.

Stereogum claims the Avalanches will follow its 2001 debut this year ... here's for holding out hope. And the Hold Steady might reward is with some new tracks, too.

That's all for now, folks.

Vampire Weekend - Contra (1-12-10)
Spoon - Transference (1-19-10)
Yeasayer - Odd Blood (2-9-10)
LCD Soundsystem - TBA (3-??-10)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"The Blah Blah of Gaga"

Newsweek, not exactly the go-to source for entertainment and art criticism, never-the-less put into words what I wish I had regarding Lady Gaga, essentially hitting on the head exactly why she's terrible, and why pop culture writers going along for the disco-stick ride are on some bullshit.
To summarize in a quote or two:

"The problem with Gaga is that she refuses to add any concrete value, while also wanting us to think she has something to say. She's described her concept of "the fame" variably as an "inner sense of confidence" and something about how "nobody knows who you are, but everyone wants to know." When pressed to clarify by a reporter, she denied "trying to feel" anything at all: "I make soulless electronic pop," she said.

"Gaga may want to have it both ways, but that doesn't mean we should let her. Inscribing Rilke's question—"must I write?"—on your arm and then hiding behind a nihilist's superficiality amounts to a pretentious form of bullshit."

"Of course, bubblegum music can get a pass from needing to say anything if it's philosophically modest: rocking all night and partying every day. But with due respect to the swear-word police, pop also becomes offensive when it puts on airs it has no intention of earning."

Oh, and her songs are terrible.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Keillor v. Art

The following includes half formed opinions and thoughts, hastily typed and "published." Disagreements are welcome:

Garrison Keillor wrote a fairly funny column about art last week. Apparently he's not a big fan of gallerias, so we don't have a lot in common there. His rant against the visual arts seemed to (in his standard, enjoyably facetious tone) fulfill some need to confirm his knuckles-and-blood masculinity, but I did agree wholeheartedly with one of his statements, quoted here:

"I see no reason to paint flowers. You can buy fresh flowers. Still lifes are only an exercise. And abstract expressionism is for the lobbies of big insurance companies."


Maybe that's why I like surrealism, cubism, all that (among some impressionists and expressionists and all the other movements that I don't know the name of). The only place you can see giant elephants with spider legs is in a Dali painting. When I open my front door in real life, I don't see the ocean.

The rest of the previous quote, I have a hard time agreeing with:
"The true calling of an artist is to paint women and the greatest challenge is the naked female form. That's what separates the true artists from the wallpaper-hangers."

As you draw, you're just replicating shapes and spaces, meaning the naked form is really no more difficult to replicate on canvas than a flower, unless you are altering or stylizing it in some extreme way, and really does no more to separate the "true artists" from the greeting card scribblers than anything else. Furthermore, if still lifes are completely unnecessary because of the existence of real flowers, couldn't you say the same thing about the naked form? The inspiration that can come from the existence of a living, breathing woman is incomparable to any inspiration from a cold painting, duh.

How can a writer and musician such as Keillor have such a flat, simple appreciation of art? Measuring an artist's ability solely by his aptitude to correctly translating real world shapes and lines to canvas is missing more than half the point of a painting. We don't buy art to hang things on the wall that we can see outside the window. We appreciate art that says something about the indescribable wretchedness and joy of the human condition. A real artist can give even the simple still life mentioned above greater meaning. The flower is no longer just a flower, it's whatever the artist made it to be on convas.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Music video ramble

Music videos have been absent from MTV so long the jokes about it stopped working when we were in middle school — and the channel has found a way to show even less videos since then. The music industry is in some ugly financial straights — major labels cut artists before they can fully develop, indie labels and distributors fold along with the local record stores — and yet here is a new video out this week for the Monsters of Folk's "Say Please." It's a nice little video. But even with a singular set piece, the production values and filming wasn't cheap. Why spend this money on a video that will most likely only be viewed by fans like myself that already own the CD?

Video: Monsters of Folk: "Say Please"

Can the Web be a marketing devise that actually sells records? I watch videos on on a daily basis, and I buy records, but I'm guessing those videos mostly cue people into bands they are only going to download. What's the point of pouring thousands or even millions of dollars into a three minute ad for a product everyone is just going to steal?

One argument, I guess, is that indie kids are one of the few demographics still buying music. Grizzly Bear's latest album debuted in the top ten, not because it sold the number of albums it would have taken to reach the top ten a decade ago, but because everyone else's sales have slid so far. Even Spoon's last record charted reasonably high, pretty good for an art-pop band on Merge.
But even that demand can't justify spending a hundred thousand dollars on a video for an album that might barely go gold.

Would a work as a basic cable channel? I could hope. If indie music is mainstream enough to appear on the Twilight soundtrack, why can't it reach a mainstream audience without latching onto garbage? Is there not enough demand for a channel that would sandwhich Jim Jarmusch films with archival Pavement performances and the short films of David Lynch? If our culture is so fragmented that no one is watching the same thing on TV anymore, as the common belief goes, why can't there be a cable TV channel featuring in-depth interviews, performances, videos and films?

Apparently there are enough brain-dead Americans to support not one, but two pop-country music video stations on basic cable. How is this possible? What am I missing? And again, why the hell is anyone making music videos for indie artists if there's no indie channel to play them?

With an "indie" channel, at least artists could get paid by TV ads playing between the videos, instead of directly licensing their songs to products. Would it still be "indie?"

The Replacements, when asked to make a video, famously made one of nothing but a boom box playing their song, thumbing their nose at corporate rock establishment and a middle finger to "success" in general. And that attitude is what made the seminal indie acts what they were. In 2009 the meaning of "selling out" is different, if it exists at all, but I would still rather flip to channel 50 and see a new Phoenix video than hear it in a car commercial.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Best films of the year, not really

I don't see enough movies in theaters to honestly make a list, dammit.

Most everything good that came out this year I'll probably see on video in the next year.

The best films I did see in theaters were District 9, Adventureland and The Hangover.

Inglorious Basterds
was an interesting and sharp production by a master craftsman. Not perfect by any means, but as with any Tarantino film, I will definitely purchase and will probably become more fond with repeated viewings.

Year One was terrible.

Then again, what the fuck else came out this year? I only vaguely want to see Public Enemies. I wanted to see Terminator: Salvation until I realized it was PG-13. Something is seriously not right in the world when a Terminator flick is anything less than an R.

The top grossing film at the box office was Transformers 2. I'd probably laugh harder at that than with most of the comedies forced upon us this summer. Paul Blart. Really, America?

I read that Star Trek managed to be a blockbuster uncursed by cynical, pandering stupidity or inane plotting, so I guess I'll rent that. And, as with all Pixar productions, I'm sure Up will be fantastic, but again, I didn't see it.

A Serious Man has not yet come to my crappy Illinois city, but I could probably just put it on the top of my list without seeing it.

I am intrigued by master-provocateur Lars Von Trier's latest art-squirm fest Antichrist, and fellow cinematic knife-wielder Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon.

Any suggestions? What are your top-of-the-year lists?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hear a new Spoon track

Spoon's new album "Transference" is due out January 26 on Merge Records.

Here's a streaming track from the record:

UPDATE: This link is now broken, but if you go to and fart around a bit you can prolly still find it.

And it sounds as good as anything on Spoon's five perfect albums: sparse rhythms, jagged guitars — but now with some sweeping synths and added reverb.