On Music

December 22, 2006

Noel Gallagher @ the Perth Concert Hall

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The vulgarity of Oasis’ demographic is no secret. The bad smell’s been around for years. In my time I’ve found it to be true that the curious, spiky displays of loyalty the band ignite in their audiences may well move you to crave the fantastically implausible: that all of Mother England’s Lads (MELs) might acquire a fatally pronounced bout of scurvy.

It’s called “lad culture”, or sumfin’, and it was born in relation to Oasis during Blair’s honeymoon years (how far away they seem now). Had Oasis been born in Thatcher’s furnace, I may well view these mass movements of obnoxiousness as brave defiance, but as it stands, it’s bloody well not.

Of course, loutishness is not unique to British Oasis fans (although my observations of Oasis chat-rooms have led me to believe that Japanese fans are very well-balanced), nor is it unique to Britain. But certainly, the almost all-English crowd at the concert hall tonight presented something peculiarly British—an Oasis fandom, exquisitely unaware, or uncaring, of the unspoken rules of acoustic gigs.

One may have thought that the overwhelming British-ness of the audience was due to the fact that it’s only the Brits that give a toss about these guys anymore, but another reason became evident at my pre-gig quaff at Fenian’s pub: The Ashes were in town. It all clicked into place. The day’s play (the penultimate one) ended an hour or so before Noel came on-stage. I figured on the geography—the WACA was just a few kilometres from the venue, and covering the space between the two points was a hospitable cluster of pubs and hotels. Of course—on this day it was a British wonderland. Sure, the cricket was going miserably, but the weather was fine and, hell, everyone was pissed anyway. What a day—cricket, Noel Gallagher, the pub. It was home, but with better weather. As I stood at the bar at the bottom of the concert hall, and admired a wonderful sunset over the Swan river with hundreds of English travellers, I suspected a few would be privately weighing the costs and benefits of illegal alien-hood. G’day from WA.

And so it was—the Barmy Army was dislocated from the WACA, all bloated and giddy from a day’s sun and heroic levels of mid-strength beer, and transferred to the velvet-y splendour of Perth’s concert hall. When the lights went out, suggesting the imminent arrival of our Noel, the crowd beat itself up into a frenzy—a deafening roar of competing football chants and wilder, individual cries. This was not Oasis, mind you, but just Noel and an acoustic guitar, humbly supported by a percussionist and Gem, who sometimes played keys or backing guitar.

Yes—everyone was drunk and sunburnt, and had translated the day’s cricketing humiliation into a parochial seizure. One heckler, curiously, kept screaming out “Scunthorpe!” between songs, without any helpful supporting context, and Noel, who had not managed to shut him up with threats, resorted to embarrassing the man: “‘Scunthorpe’? That’s nothing to boast about, young man”. It worked.

There was a fine gentleman behind me who roared and wailed almost entirely incoherently, but he was polite enough to reserve lucidity in order to advertise his football club—Derby County. This man was so wild and aggressive in the sounds he made—so alien—that thoughts of telling him to shutup were abandoned for fear the good Derbyshirian would hurl me fatally off the top tier. The Today Tonight promos ran through my head: “Looking Back in Anger: How not Heeding a Lyrics Sentiment Killed a Man” and “Wonderbrawl!: MELs Kill Respectful Listener”. I clenched my teeth and waited for the next song, confident that if I died, the Today Tonight poll asking whether the Barmy Army should be deported en masse would overwhelmingly be agreed upon.

You may have detected a whiff of snobbishness here, and you’d be right to—but there’s a point to my rant that’s irreducible: drunk fuck-nuts are drunk fuck-nuts, and that goes for Liam Gallagher, too.

Sitting through the performance—slightly re-arranged versions of the great old b-sides and classics—I got the horrible feeling that I had grown up too much to enjoy Noel (not grown up enough, no, but enough to feel uneasy in that den of wild chatter and pop anthems). I got to thinking how nice it would be if Noel’s self-perceived gift of wittiness could find a place in his lyrics, and I twitched uncomfortably when he sung the chorus to “Fade Away” (while we’re living/the dreams we have as children fade away) and got to thinking how incongruous that piece of whimsy was with its author. No, it’s not really a problem when the songs are this good (and I was really nodding my head to this version), but the fact was I was thinking—a sure sign you’ll miss the ineffable thrill of pop.

After the gig the three of us piled out as quickly as possible, and searched for something to eat. We needed to get away from the swaying hordes of hyper maked-up girls and polo shirts. After some time we found a kebab store and sat down outside. It was then I remarked on the significance of what we had been talking about since leaving the gig, a space of 25 minutes. We had been talking about Alan Partridge. The significance was that there was no post-gig post-mortem, but the thing is, there was nothing to say. Our deflation eclipsed Noel’s presence. More, listening to Noel idly churn out the classics (it was the last stage of a world-wide tour) had an end-of-an-era feel to it. It just seemed right to be there, to pay homage to nostalgia, and to do so away from those crowds, in those festivals. A night of acoustic intimacy, I thought, might nicely round off my time with Oasis; a last, intimate conversation with my childhood. That sense of intimacy was exploded, however, and I could not be moved to appreciate the gig in the ways of everyone else. This was one last, selfish desire I had of Oasis—to appreciate their legacy as a solipsist—and I thought a small acoustic set at the concert hall would do it. Of course, it didn’t.

Oasis remain for our good MELs what they were over ten years ago—a lofty, swaggering testament to hedonism and thuggery. It’s a shame, and perhaps one sensed by Noel too, if his response to some particularly inane and ribald commentary made from the front of the audience is any measure: “that might have been funny 8 years ago, my friend, but as it stands, it’s fucking mind numbing”.

I would like to think that Noel’s humbled these days by contemplating the culture he’s helped create. Well, perhaps not so much as “created” but unleashed or titillated. If he is, and he may never admit it, he’s right to be embarrassed.

Posted by Marty at 4:24 PM

October 6, 2006

I Am Kloot--"Proof"

So it’s a Friday evening & the sun’s slipping &, well, I just discovered this gem—I Am Kloot & one of the better time-travelling Doctors teaching us all… something. Enjoy

Posted by Marty at 5:32 PM

September 21, 2006

Bob Dylan's Modern Times

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I must confess to never having understood the Dylan phenomenon. I have understood his talent, his charm, and the spark in my mother’s eye when his name is mentioned, but never have I really got it—The Judas Moment, the spiritual dualism, the ego, the mystic. It may be, as essayist Ian McDonald has it, that Dylan came to represent the younger half of the “great disruption” of the 1960s. Dylan as the Dalai Lama of cool in a generation defined by the schism between two competing ways of life: a battle of fathers and sons. I’m fond of this theory, but I have no firm belief—I was born just months after Chapman fired a revolver into the chest of that other pop messiah.
And so it feels strange to review this thing—if Dylan’s phenomenon is properly located in generations, I am very far away. My generation is not so clearly marked by the “hard rain” Dylan prophesied, but by the odd terrors of asymmetrical warfare. Note also that Dylan’s own experiments with acid and self—the tinkerings that helped him make his best music—burnt him out, and he has long since retreated back to something like the wandering Woody Guthrie figure that emerged in New York in the early ’60s.
Modern Times is Bob playing around with ol’ Muddy Waters riffs, breathing life into them with his grainy, wheezy delivery. It’s a voice that’s seen the schism, and fought it with myth and amphetamine, and a strange liking for self-invention. I gotta say I’m glad he’s still around, and that his voice itself is suggestive of an enormous historical legacy. Those who grew up with Dylan may like to see him now as traveling mystic, happiest when he’s on a remote porch with a guitar and a bottle of moonshine. Maybe Dylan himself is happiest when he thinks that too, but I have no opinion, other than this: there is a great depth and charm to this record, made from the puff and grunt of our greatest musical enigma. This is Dylan breathing in deeply his country’s blues history, and exhaling it with a musical instinct that will probably go down as history’s most observed and argued about.

Posted by Marty at 6:40 PM

August 31, 2006

Zach Braff's Taste in Music, or, Why I Think The Last Kiss Will Suck

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I enjoyed Garden State. It’s a mildly embarrassing claim, outnumbered as I am by friends who variously slashed the film as “cheap”, “sentimental”, “appalling”, and “trite”. “Trite” comes up a lot. But no, I was in an odd mood that day, and the film’s earnest juggling of the medicated-versus-full-and-painful-experience dilemma humbled me, and when Simon and Garfunkel were used to excite emotions, well I was quite happy to play along: “The Only Living Boy in New York” just happens to be one of my all-time favourite songs, probably ranking in my top three, sympathetic as I am to Nick Hornby-styled quantifications. So yes, I soon owned the soundtrack, a reminder of things big and small.

But this time ‘round, it’s different. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack of Braff’s latest flick (well, he stars in it and produced the soundtrack), The Last Kiss, and I haven’t yet seen the film. It’s proved instructive.
Coldplay make another appearance. As do Remy Zero, whoever they are. Joshua Radin is there, a man whose rising star is owed to Braff’s public interest. But let’s not list. A soundtrack should be judged on its sum, right? not its parts, and so it’s sad but probably not surprising to announce that the soundtrack’s sum is… schmaltz.

There was a film recently which generated more interest in the attorney general’s office than it did in cinemas, or film critics’ columns. The film was Mysterious Skin, a sweaty, irritating film on the lives of two young men, each struggling differently from the abuse suffered at the hands of a pederast many years ago. It evoked very little in me, except for the last scene, where a wonderful Sigur Rós song is deployed to stir your stomach. It worked. As redemption appeared to be within reach of our hero (or was it?) strings began, mournfully playful at first, then… reaching, broadening, soaring. It was a cheap trick.

For reasons that only the very best writers, writing at their very best, have articulated, music is God-powerful. Film makers know this. Judging by the sizeable heart of Garden State, I would not suggest for a second that Braff’s obvious interest in music is anything but genuine, but listening to this soundtrack, removed as it is from the film, I can only appreciate the sum—mawkish gunk, where good songs are not allowed to breathe, forced as they are against strangers in a tight space.

It does not bode well for the film, me thinks, and nor does the appointment of the O.C.’s Rachel Bilson—cast, probably, as the my-laugh-can-unlock-the-secret-of-life heroine. But I may be wrong. Regardless, there are artists working in Hollywood whose crimes are far, far worse than earnestness and an ear for schmaltz. But I am taking this out of my discman stack.

Posted by Marty at 7:01 PM | Comments (2)

April 8, 2006

The Golden Age: Hip-Hop 1992--1996

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For hip-hop, the years 1992-96 are deservedly legendary… a bright and fizzy nadir populated by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and De la Soul; Nas and Smif ‘n’ Wessun; Diamond D and Biz Markie and so on and on….
Until recently I was willing to accept the warm glow of the records from those years as the subjective hum of nostalgia’s trickery—those records were my soundtrack to my youth… virtue enough, musical criticism be damned. But, no—there was something else, something truly remarkable; a magical creative consistency blessing the records of that time with the same retrospective awe that graces the guitar records of the Summer of Love.
When Stephen Webb came into computing class some time in April, 1994—pale and shaking slightly—and told me that Kurt Cobain had blown himself away, my response was: “who?” Shocked and repulsed, Stephen turned away from me and chewed over the tragedy in silence.
As wan Goths and self-appointed teen leaders of angst and apathy sought masochistic comforts in Nirvana’s music (and strange and vague vindication in their sudden demise), I was entranced by Tribe’s and De la’s studied removal from gangsta rap, filling the violent vacuums of rap with jazz-laced elegies and indie-innovations. Tribe’s first three records are remarkable—fun, fleshy, jazzy exercises, sharpened with lyrical sophistication and boundless confidence. It was truly celebratory music, in that it celebrated music—the bright miasma of creative opportunity.
As Cobain’s blood was being mopped up in that dingy spare room in Lake Washington, and Cobain’s widow began her strange career as a graceless time-bomb, the hip-hop world was enjoying its creative zenith—unhindered by the (as yet unrealised) commercial gaze of white A & Rs.
As a white middle-class kid, much of hip-hop’s politics was lost on me, but if we are to accept music’s transcendent qualities, then the golden age’s fruits exercised enormous meaning to me. I may not have had much in common with the Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s dangerous eccentricity, or Nas’ street poetry, but Kurt Cobain’s chilling nihilism sure as fuck didn’t represent me either, and the musician’s mourning masses uncomfortably introduced me to notions of conformity.
So what were the records? Perhaps the finest hip-hop record ever released came in the year that Cobain ended it. Illmatic by the then 20-year-old poet laureate of New York’s ghettos, Nas. Nas has never equalled this record, which gave us the Pete Rock-produced gem of self-affirmation “The World is Yours” and the sunny, harmony-laced “Memory Lane (Sitting in da Park)”. Nas’ grand self-advertisement “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” eloquently announced his arrival:

“It ain’t hard to tell, I excel, then prevail/
The mic is contacted, I attract clientele”

It is an amazing record—sharp, arresting beats, infectious samples and loops and found melodies, and unrivalled lyrics. A landmark. 1994 will be remembered for a famous capitulation, but if there was some justice beneath our moon, it would also be remembered for its great creative triumphs.

The previous year a shadowy band of martial-arts obsessed rappers from Staten Island, NY, dropped their debut—Wu-tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers. Like Nas, their debut was never to be equalled, a beguiling bomb of charismatic lunacy, notable for its disarming originality. It would spawn some impressive debut solo records—Chef Raekwon’s Only Built for Cuban Linx especially—but nothing the group would put out collectively would match Enter.

A shame this piece should descend into detailed discography—suffice to say that a golden moment was realised, the period fleeting, but the fruits enduring, and I was lucky enough to have my eyes open to see it, not as so I can profess an imagined sense of belonging, but as so when I return to these records now I can sigh contentedly…

Posted by Marty at 2:07 PM | Comments (2)

March 6, 2006

Things Fall Apart, Or, A Crazy Motherfucker Named Ice Cube

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There are landmark moments of the apolitical and nihilistic in US history. My favourite is President Richard Nixon—his damning White House tapes and eventual resignation.
Another favourite is a recording released 14 years after Nixon’s resignation, and it too deeply burnt the American psyche. The recording? NWA’s Straight Outta Compton.

The group, composed of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Eazy-E and DJ Yella, scared the bejeesus out of America with an album that bled apocalyptic forecasts for the LA ghettos—streets filled with the blood of women and punks and cops; where drugs and cum are currency; and where the only politics that matter is who’s shooting who.
There’s no doubt that the recurring themes of violent misogyny, rape, and murder are unsettling still, and when Cube rapped:

young nigga on the warpath/ and when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath/ of cops, dying in LA/ yo Dre, I’ve got something to say… Fuck tha police!

white-America suffered apoplectic seizures, and the rich-white mobilized to demonize the album and restrict its dissemination. It was too late, and LA rioted four years later: 51 dead and 1 billion dollars in damages. Things fall apart.
Straight Outta Compton read like a queer interpretation of Churchill’s “We shall not flag or fail” speech, except that the orators were gun-slingin’ gangstas who wished to defend nothing except their right to smoke cops and shoot bitches. Young children played in the smoke of a burning LA, rapping word for word “Gangsta, Gangsta”—the record was, very certainly, the poor and black’s nihilistic version of Churchill’s call to arms. But rather than the defeat of an unequivocal enemy, it seemed NWA’s victory was that their apocalyptic rants were coming true.
What made NWA’s record so frightening was that the brutal violence was a-contextualised. Public Enemy were causing their storm with smoother beats and an eye to history—they were still angry, but smarter and cooler. NWA were unremittingly bleak, placing their stories of the ghetto out of history’s reach. Their lyrics of drug dealing and murder enjoyed no arc of redemption. Everything, just simply, was.

I was given my first ever album by a kid down the road. I was twelve.
I had provided him with a blank tape, swiped from my parents’ stash, and he had responded by pirating NWA’s Straight Outta Compton on his dual-cassette deck. I loved it.
For a white, middle-class kid, the album provided its owner with a righteous sense of rebellion. But with further listens, the album yielded things of greater interest.
Of course, the politics (or apolitics) of the ghetto were lost on me. I was simply thrilled by the profanity, and amazed at the stories: murder without remorse; the rise and fall of drug empires and the cruel and unusual treatment of women. None of it made any real sense, but I remained curious and entertained, just like I was when I read the Hardy Boys or the Three Investigators.
I was piqued by News From Another World, a world where the rules were strange and adult and black. A world whose one underlying rule was that there weren’t any rules, and the vicarious pleasure this afforded its young, white listener is obvious. I was the young voyeur of race and class, and my now barren ant-farm I received for Christmas was forgotten for this greater, more interesting microcosm.
Of course the music itself left its mark, and my favourite track on the album was (it still is) “Express Yourself,” a song preaching the virtue (and dangers) of free speech. It sampled the inexplicably funky Wright brothers’ riff from their song of the same name, and it floored me.
My ownership of this record was kept secret from my parents, and so when they left to do whatever boring things white middle-class folks do on Saturday mornings, I commandeered their stereo system and blasted “Express Yourself” as loud as I could. Right now, 13 years later, I’m doing the same thing on my stereo, and whilst my love for the song hasn’t diminished in that time, the excitement of playing it cannot rate with those days.
“Express Yourself” was the one moment on the album where the claustrophobic greys of nihilism were lifted and replaced with colour—“Express Yourself” presented things that they believed in, urged along by one of the great funk riffs. For me, it was an intermission. A coffee break which was better than anything that went before or after.

MC Ren eventually slipped into obscurity, Dre and Cube discovered the main-stream, and Eazy-E, high on Marquis de Sade perversities, succumbed to AIDS in 1995. LA’s smoke cleared, only for long-standing prejudices to be resumed quietly. Programs of gentrification cleaned up the streets of LA, breaking the bloc of black insurgency, and of gangs and blood, but poverty is never abolished, just swept around, and the rich and outraged began to successfully use the riots as evidence for the dangerous influence of gangsta rap.
The mainstream eventually tapped into the commercial viability of black street battles, and when Tupac and Biggie were gunned down, as many whites mourned the loss of their pop-leaders as blacks. I am reminded again of my ant-farm.
LA’s race hostilities quieted down, lessening the appeal of gangsta rap, and as NWA, Ice-T (another hardcore rap instigator who would discover the mainstream) and other gangsta rappers were forgotten, Dre introduced the world to G-funk and Snoop Dogg and a whole universe of celebratory hip-hop emerged, commensurate with newly discovered commercial success.
Rappers were richer, white America was less scared, and this young listener had been introduced to a (so-far) life-long love for hip-hop. So it goes.

Posted by Marty at 11:43 AM | Comments (13)

December 24, 2005

Top 5 Albums of the Year

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Teenage Fanclub
Man-made

The good folk at Pitchfork know a lot more about music than I. They are also probably a lot smarter. Subsequently, you won’t find this album anywhere on Pitchfork’s Top 50 Albums of the Year list. But I am a Fannies partisan through and through, and so after the achingly average Howdy (the album that preceded this one), a relieving, if not remarkable, restoration took place. It wasn’t Grand Prix, it wasn’t Bandwagonesque, and the Fannies don’t possess the bon chic and swagger (they’re Dads now) necessary for bullshit mags to tell us how important they are. You know what you want with the Fannies—deft harmonies, crunching guitars, and the modest charm that comes from being four very lovely and talented chaps. This album gave us just that, and I’m thankful.

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Sufjan Stevens
Illinois

It is always intimidating writing about The Best. The best minds and fingers and hearts of our, or anyone’s, generation. To sit down and write, say, about the legacy of Joyce, or Fitzgerald, Lennon or Coltrane, is a tough job for anyone, largely because you have to convince your readers that you have something of value to add to the discussion. I’m certainly not comparing Stevens’ legacy with any of the aforementioned, but he is certainly one of The Best.
I’m still not sure what art is, but I’m sure that this record is just that—an inspiring, sometimes devastating map of emotion and memory, painted with mellifluous melancholy. “Casimir Pulaski Day”, for instance, drives a strange and intricate stake into your heart and, oddly, it feels kinda nice. Bless you, Mr. Stevens.

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Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

What’s with this record? The vocals sound like a petulant child’s bitching, and the guitars often read like a high-school jam. And, of course, there is that name. And yet we were given one of the best records of the year—an album which smells both fresh and sad, like going to the beach with friends after a fight with your girlfriend.
Or not.
The album is also written with an odd sense of nerdy defiance. There is a clever confidence, but it is never overbearing in that smarmy art-college-rock-band kinda way. CYHSY don’t rely upon irony or humour to make their point. They just do it their way, and it sounds great.

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Green Day
American Idiot

The boys that wrote “F.O.D.” (“You’re just… a fuck/I can’t explain it ‘cause I think you suck”) discovered their political conscience, and used it against a background of super-amped guitars still playing the same three power-chords they discovered as teenagers. So, no, the music hasn’t really changed, but they have kinda grown up, have better haircuts and wear their liberal politics on their designer-punk sleeves.
It’s odd to think that more than a decade on after Dookie, Green Day are more popular than ever. There’s a new generation listening to them now, and instead of being fed poorly worded angst they’re getting “Fuck Bush in the mouth”. Cool.

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The Rosebuds
Birds Make Good Neighbours

Gone was sun-drenched pop, replaced with something much darker, meditative and, yes, better. Sure, there’s a great pop-hook on the eighth track, but the rest is all an intelligent grey. It is not an earnest record, nor is its sombreness forced or dreary. There’s enough life-light and smarts on this record to grow on you, and its unsettling nature is largely so because of its subtlety.
Their’s is a graduation, of sorts. A sad one.

Commendations
Crooked Fingers: Dignity and Shame—Sounds like the best of The Boss; and no, not the John Kerry stuff.
Wolf Parade: Apologies to the Queen Mary—“Modern World”. ‘Nuff said.
Cocorosie: Noah’s Ark—French weird-folk. Title track’s good.

Posted by Marty at 12:51 PM

October 18, 2005

My Weekend & the Crisis of Confidence

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I was standing in a CD store the other day, holding both Scorsese’s new Dylan documentary in one hand, and the new-ish Simon & Garfunkel Old Friends concert DVD in the other. I debated with Nat about their respective merits. I paced around the store, looking for a sign. Something. Anything… I spotted the Garden State DVD.
I bought Simon & Garfunkel.
I have since watched it twice, the first time alone… I was brought to tears by the harmonic shifts in “The Boxer”, and the note-perfect rendition of “America”. The large, carnival take on “Cecilia”—with a perfectly practiced alteration on the chorus—damn near ‘fragged my heart. Art’s ascending wail (“Making love in the afternoon/with Cecilia up in my bedroom”) caught me, before Paul’s tag-team introduced a faux-folksy, irreverent intonation of the same lines (with a knowing thumb gesture at the “my bedroom” part). I listened to the original recording again, only to find this live version much better.
When Rob Schwimmer waltzed on-stage to play an inspired melodica solo during the “49th Street Bridge Song”, well…
The second time, I poured a very decent bottle of scotch into two glasses and decided it was time to reintroduce myself to my house-mate.
He is a good man.
We chatted about love as myth, and love as practicality. We spoke of love as hope and love as misery. We talked about family and failure and breasts. We decided that they were, indeed, very lovely things.
Then I brought out the Simon and Garfunkel DVD.
He agreed that the sound quality was superb, and the expectations I sold with “Homeward Bound” were fulfilled. The performance of this song includes an extended jam-outro, boasting a mesmerizing classical guitar solo.
“Cecilia” rocked him, and me again, and “Kathy’s Song” re-introduced us to the fragility of Art’s voice (yes, it is Paul who sings the original).
But I stop here.
A criticism of Simon and Garfunkel can’t be expressed with the same depth and clarity and life-affirming grace that they themselves offer. I don’t think I want to try.
I had the same strange problem (a crisis of confidence) days before, after watching The Proposition. I was very sure that it was the best Australian film I had ever seen, but was unsure in my ability to say exactly why.
I had a scatter-job of ideas on the film—of Arthur Burn’s invocation of Kurtz and Charles Manson. Of the nature of moral archetype. I had shit on the absence of a demonstrable inner-life of Charlie Burns (until, that is, the final scene). I had… blah-blah-blah…
It’s all rubbish. None of my potential remarks could hold up to the superb talents of the makers of this film. The best thing for you to do is to put on S&G (or whoever) and hug your best friend. You would also do well to watch Nick Cave’s re-imagining of Our Colonial Past and be thankful we have so skilled a man writing and singing about this space.
A thousand thank-yous.

“Hello, hello, hello, hello.
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.
That’s all there is.”
—Paul Simon, “Leaves That Are Green”

Posted by Marty at 9:01 PM

May 18, 2005

Album Review -- Marshmallow

Marshmallow
Marshmallow
[Embryo Records; 2005]

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Teenage Fanclub had something (&, with a new album forthcoming, perhaps the present tense can be reinstated — a credit relinquished when the group released the achingly average Howdy). What that critical something was can only ever really be spoken of in terms of charm — that troublesome catch-all description that, with reference to the Fannies, may or may not have been a way of summarizing the ineffable alchemy of taut harmonies inspired by a confident and independent rendition of the Byrds at their best.
Of course, there are many ingredients to the Fannies’ magic — some of them easily located, and others that sit happily in the unspeakable meta-reaches of music appreciation. But so what? Well, to speak of Marshmallow is to speak of Teenage Fanclub — a band who have undoubtedly left an impression on these New Zealanders; it’s a comparison that permits the understanding that tuning 12-string guitars can be taught, but the command of charm is unlearnable.

So, I don’t get it — Marshmallow lack charm? Simply put, Marshmallow sound like gregarious, but imperfect Fanny devotees — they have a suitable command of melodies, crisp-sounding guitars and an optimistic aesthetic loyal to their band name. But here’s the rub — with a name like Marshmallow, opinions, surely, will be formed about the group’s music before a listen. And the thing is, the music is much like a Marshmallow — just as sweet (saccharine in over-consumption), as immediately appealing (but the appeal evaporates quickly), and, ultimately, just as disposable. This sounds just like you’d expect — an album decorated with hum-able riffs, but seriously bogged down in unpardonable cliches that aren’t, to this ear anyway, informed by anything close to irony, or verbal playfulness, or self-knowledge — not that pop should be informed by such smarmy things, but in the case of this album — one so thickly defined by heavy sweetness — such things may have lifted the songs, placing them in a higher basket, say that of Teenage Fanclub.

It’s a nasty business — to capture a band’s reputation, torturing it in the dimly lit passages of comparison, but surely it’s also informative to judge a group by the best, and the Fannies were/are just that — a humble, happy occupation of the lineage that began with the Byrds, and justly continued by the likes of Big Star.
What Marshmallow have here is not a bad album (the track ”Casting Couch” is dangerously catchy, and ”Open Mic Night” has an elusive, suburban poetry to it), but it’s far from taking its place in the canon of sun-drenched pop — but hey, it’s a debut effort, and there’s always time… time and more time.

Posted by Marty at 1:14 PM

April 21, 2005

BLOOD AND THE MOON -- Remembering Elliot Smith

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.
W.B. Yeats (”A Coat”)

It was in a Seoul pub called the 3 Alleys, and months after the fact, that I first found out….
Our group of friends had discovered a real spirit; tequila shots were drunk in rapid succession, and we had a healthy monopoly on the jukebox — it was snowing outside and we had the open fire within reach.
And it was against this backdrop that I overheard the news that Elliot Smith had stabbed himself to death.
I was in South Korea and the distance between Smith’s death and the news reaching my ears was substantial.
Whatever.
Elliot Smith was dead and the news proved shocking — surprised at the grim cocktail of sadness and repulsion settling in my stomach, I took refuge in the bathroom. I waited out the tides of shock in isolation.
And again — whatever. My reactions are secondary to the fact that a terrible history of depression had destroyed one of our greatest living singer-songwriters. And so that’s what I’ll address here, having established my part in this devil’s story.
Smith’s history is indeed a grim one. A victim of child-abuse, the dramatic internalisation of the external that occurs with children took place with fevered levels of corruption. Smith never overcame the seeds that were ruthlessly planted in his youth, and a path of alcoholism, drug dependence and impossible creativity were to be the defining points of a tragic life. And this leads us to an interesting question, concerning the very nature, the engine, of creative output….
There is no doubt that Smith’s music is sculpted by very loud strains of melancholy. His work is a dramatic example of catharsis — indeed his pain is so evident it’s at times difficult to shake shameless pangs of voyeurism when listening to him.
Smith’s tragic life, and melancholic output, are well known — and to add to this I think it’s safe to say Smith was inordinately sensitive; he became Vonnegut’s mine-shaft canary, the creature employed for its super-sensitivity, sent down mine-shafts ahead of humans to test for poisonous gases. Well, Smith employed himself, but we all used him and he never came back. This sounds pretty close to Lennon or Hendrix or Morrison, doesn’t it? Or how about Bukowski, Hemingway and Brautigan? Not all of these characters suicided, but the marriage of creativity and tragedy defined them all, as did their acute sensitivity. Of course any such list is designed to strengthen argument superficially — one could compile a simple list of artists that produced art without using tragedy as a muse, but what remains clear is how much pain was required for Smith to create what he did.
Let’s go back a little… a child can be likened to blotting paper up until the age (it varies) when relatively sophisticated intellectual and emotional apparatuses are constructed — before this point, before certain ”filters” are established (a product of experience, hence age), the child absorbs environment, and it leaves something permanent in the back of the brain — tragedy will invariably leave a dark ink stain, largely indelible, if the spill is made before the time a child suitably matures to be able to deal effectively with the event.
Well, Smith was a victim of child abuse, and never seemed capable of losing the stains in his brain. He tried valiantly, however, and now we, the listeners, occupy the strange position of being able to enjoy the products of these fatal pains.
elliotsmith.jpg

***

After hearing the news, I went home and put my Elliot Smith CDs on and continued drinking. If I tried hard enough, I thought I could see Elliot remembering forgotten beauties whilst at the piano, or the bar, but it slid and never returned and for what he must have thought were the best of reasons he ended it with a knife.

***

I’m damned sorry Smith was abused — I’m damned sorry any human is — and Smith’s history made him beautiful in the eyes of everyone except himself. So be it, this world is often marked with tragedy, but Smith is someone to have mined gold from it for the rest of us. Be thankful, because he died so that we could hear it.

Posted by Marty at 11:29 AM | Comments (2)

Album Review -- Mogwai

Mogwai
Kicking a Dead Pig

[RockAction Records; 2001]

There’s a nauseating swarm of cliches that follow Mogwai reviews around; they attach themselves parasitically, gorging themselves on meaning and insight before, after their meta-feast, the digested fruits are dispelled to the ethers… the ubiquitous ”kings of post-rock” jars, as does the unimaginative ”apocalyptic” recourse… the point being, it is easy enough to capture Mogwai’s spirit with a very simple epithet, say: Mogwai, with a cultured insouciance and amps turned to 11, provide us with the exhilarating yolk of punk mentality, filtered through a post-rock lens. Oh, and they like wearing Kappa and getting soused on vodka whilst they’re doing it.
Post-rock can be an elitist cathedral — overblown with pomp and dilettantes, it’s an arena shared by both visionaries and barely-adequates. Mogwai, drunk on wine, poetry and virtue, ensure, however, that the bar is raised high.
So what of this collection of re-mixes?
Blips, beats and bass are brought to this album courtesy of artists as varied as Arab Strap, Max Tundra and Kid Loco and, with the assistance of others, commit unpardonable crimes against traditional song-structure. This is a fierce brand of song terrorism… but does it work?
At times there remains, through the mixes, the deftly laconic, ascending guitar leads I know and love; there remains also that unusual Mogwai signature — the sense that you’ve been transported to a nihilist’s arcadia, if indeed such a place is possible to imagine.
But, and this is the crux of the thing, the Mogwai tracks here have been so heavily carpeted with cold bleeps and blitches, trance beats and pastiches of ”found noise” that a divorce is achieved between Mogwai and the tracks in favour of the distressingly morgue-like penchants of the po-mo remixer. Which brings us to an interesting question: are remix albums there to pay a unique fidelity to the original material? Or do they primarily serve the talents/egos of the re-mixer? Or how about option three: Who gives a shit?
The second track on Disc 1, ”Helicon 2” revives the cute, but poorly recorded and ultimately incidental original, which can be found on the early EP Ten Rapid. A genuine improvement on the original, ”Helicon 2 (the Max Tundra remix)” serves the original’s simple, sweet guitar riff with added pillows of comforting effects, stoic drums, and mellifluous xylophone, but not before we’re frightened shitless by an opening 1.20 of fuzzy, industrial screaming. This, you feel, was made with a computer and a heart.
The other highlight to be found on Disc 1 is, appropriately enough, the only re-mix committed by Mogwai themselves, ”Mogwai Fear Satan”. The dirty gravity of a Jumbo jet’s noise is preserved here, as is the steady, steady climb of a wall of noise so steep it inspires vertigo. But, in truth, the rest of the album (which features Young Team staples ”Summer”, ”Like Herod” and ”R U Still in 2 It”) serves eerie interpretations amidst the gloss of pretension and hospital aesthete.
The second disc features just two tracks, both of them ”Mogwai Fear Satan” (yes, this track features four times on the two discs, yet very few, if any, similarities exist between them). The first re-mix is accredited to U Ziq, the second to the interstellar coupling of Mogwai and My Bloody Valentine.
The MBV-mix stands at over 16 minutes; it holds that you could find time to vomit viciously off of at least half the Disneyland rides before the song’s completion… in fact it’s a bodily function that may be brought on by a simple listen — the song’s first 10 minutes are a grotesque marriage of Dante’s Hell and the soundtrack to Eraserhead. In other words, a grim cocktail of preternatural wailing mashed with the sounds of a Mexican construction site… but then, on 10 minutes, something like light appears. The distemper lifts and the sounds of angels appear — the first real hint of Kevin Shields’ influence. And damn if it’s not a relief. You grab a drink of water at this heavenly oasis, and light a cigarette. The Shields’ ebbs and flows cover you. But just as you’re finishing your cigarette, and stubbing it out on the cloud you’re sitting on, an assertive, distorted beat kicks in, and it’s time to explore again… and when it’s all over it’s like those Sunday mornings when you had first discovered alcohol — you’ve got a raging headache and partial amnesia, but a strange and glorious glow from doing something so wrong….

If you’re fortunate enough to woo that someone special back to the pad after a first date, you would be well advised not to play this album. Shy of rupturing said partner’s retinas, you may be arrested for gross indecency, and you can be sure you won’t be getting that follow up call. Tread carefully….

Posted by Marty at 11:16 AM

Album Review -- Apples in Stereo

Apples in Stereo
Fun Trick Noisemaker

[SpinArt; 1995]

apples.jpg

There’s a photo of a girl I once knew in Seoul stuck to my bedroom door. The photo’s not especially good, but that doesn’t matter — you see, it’s the smile that the photo’s captured that’s important. It’s a smile informed with an astonishingly accomplished sense of fun and the sharp and sexy buzz of intellect; it’s a smile that evidences a soft and swollen heart and a fondness for mango daiquiris. It was a very good shag.
And it’s also a smile that remains cosmically attached to the human magic it took to write this album — an incurably charming marriage of sun-blessed melodies and ever-optimistic lyrics… in anyone else’s hands, the good intentions that paved this album could very well have led to an album crippled with schmaltz, but kid, these are able hands….
Spiritual proteges of The Beatles, Richard Brautigan and temperate climates, Apples in Stereo have forwarded us gleaming tight pop — they are the musical equivalents of Brautigan’s best passages — the one about the ”waterfall” in Trout Fishing in America, or his descriptions of the Japanese beauty in Sombrero Fallout (”Yukiko turned like a beautiful page in her sleep…”) — the point is, they are both masters of their craft, and their product is a profound simplicity, achievable only because of their respective skills.
Also achieved with this album is a sense of credible essence — you know, like Teenage Fanclub’s Byrds and Beatles homage; their influences are judiciously appropriated with soul and substance. Well, like the Fannies, the Apples too boast the talent of being educated and intelligent.
If Liam Gallagher could get his hands on Fun Trick… you can almost imagine his drug-addled features contorting in confusion and panic — how could these American no-bodies have nailed The Beatles’ essence so… accurately? Well, far from cheap proponents of self-aggrandizement and mimicry, The Apples lay forth pop-bubbles brokered from much firmer stuff. To assist enforce this sense of distinguish, it may be appropriate to mention here that psychedelic-pop stable, Elephant 6 (you know the E6 bands…), was partially established by Apples main-man Rob Schneider. Kudos.
The recording levels on this album are attributable to the use of an 8-track analogue; whether it was a decision decided by fiscal infractions, or to establish a proper sense of retro homage (I suspect the latter), the record does often sound as if it’s been recorded in a dusty cupboard. Sure, there’s a warmth, but there’s also a sense of a dirty brown film hanging over the vocals. Damn it, in the super-sexy world of digital sound, I think a case can be made for re-mastering this record. And I know that the Apples would rather see me shot. I love them for that.

Posted by Marty at 11:10 AM