Friday, January 30, 2004

This newly republished Freaky Trigger article got me thinking about music's relationship with America's suburbs. Now, I don't know too much about English suburbs despite maybe living in one for a year (is Twickenham a suburb? It seemed pretty urban to me at the time). But if Tom Ewing's description is to be believed, English suburbs are nothing like American ones; there's nothing quiet or modest about American suburbs. They're shiny, ostentatious, and absolutely ridiculous in so many ways that it boggles the mind. But American popular music has really never engaged the suburbs in any kind of comprehensive or balanced way; every song about the suburbs - from the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday" to, I don't know, virtually any early 80s hardcore song - has pretty much just said that the suburbs are bland and conformist and sucky. Which, OK, but it doesn't say anything about the uniquely great experiences of growing up suburban, like getting drunk in 7-11 parking lots or piling into a car, getting lost on the way to a show at some VFW hall.

This is one of the reasons why I think Grand Buffet is so insanely great. They absolutely nail the way suburban kids revel in all this stuff. "The flashing lights and the crackling sound of the world's last Applebee's burning down." "I never make eye contact in arcades." This stuff is gold. How many bands have even acknowledged the existence of Applebee's in their lyrics?

Grand Buffet will be in town opening for Sage Francis in a couple of weeks. I like Sage Francis, but this will just be another notch on the list of Grand Buffet opening for someone in Baltimore and blowing them off the stage: Cex (sorry Rjyan), Deerhoof, Sole, Har Mar Superstar. The only band I've seen that could hang with Grand Buffet was the Dismemberment Plan playing to a packed, delirious house at the absolute pinnacle of their powers. Seriously, go see Grand Buffet.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

In a recent column for, Jean Grae talks about how she can't get her foot in the music industry door and how much that pisses her off. She has some interesting points. I thought Attack of the Attacking Things was pretty wack (I wasn't happy about the $14 I threw down for it), but its failure had more to do with weak beats and bad sequencing than any flaws that Jean Grae might have. She's gotten a ton of press (maybe too much), and a lot of her guest appearances have been tight. After not liking her album, I'm not going to put in the money and effort to track down her new EP, but the one song I've heard is good. Grae definitely has what it takes to be a player in underground hip-hop, and it's kind of incredible that one of the bigger indies hasn't picked her up. She'd be a perfect fit for, say, Def Jux, where a good exec producer like El-P could help her put together an album that would play to her strengths.

But the real reason she hasn't made it (yet) isn't really Attack of the Attacking Things; it's the fact that she's black and female in a backpacker rap subculture that is becoming increasingly white and male, especially with the rise of labels like Def Jux and Anticon. I like Def Jux and Anticon, but a lot of the stuff on those labels couldn't be much whiter or maler; it has more to do with IDM and indie-rock than mainstream hip-hop. I listen to Sole and Aesop Rock pretty much the same way I listen to Four Tet and the Angels of Light; it doesn't really make sense to listen to them next to the Ying Yang Twins or 50 Cent or even someone like Murs, all of whom sound to me like hip-hop (well, maybe not the Ying Yang Twins so much, but that's another story). All this is fine, but guys like Aesop and Sole are dominating the underground right now. Defari got a lot of shit a couple of months ago when he said in an interview that people like Atmosphere and Aesop are taking money out of his mouth by doing this garbage shit that just isn't hip-hop. This was a stupid thing for Defari to say, and it definitely hurt his career, but it raises some important questions. Like, why is such a chasm developing between mainstream and underground hip-hop? I really don't think this gulf is a good thing. I'm glad Sole and Aesop have the room to say what they want, but they're also pretty obviously pushing out people like Defari and Jean Grae - that is, black people who rap like black people. Eminem notwithstanding, it's still pretty much expected that most mainstream rappers will be black or Latino. But in the underground, it's become a liability. It has become lucrative to be white.

Now that Rawkus has gone completely belly-up, there isn't really much of a niche left for black underground rappers. Some of them (Mos, Talib, Kanye) have managed to carve out a place in the mainstream, but most have fallen by the wayside. There is virtually no bridge between the two sensibilities and subcultures. Can anyone really imagine Sage Francis spitting on a mixtape next to Lloyd Banks? Or even Dead Prez? I'd like to see it happen, but I don't think it ever will.

In light of all this, I'm kind of sad that Atmosphere signed to Epitaph. Slug is just about the only guy I can see uniting the two poles of hip-hop, bringing the underground to the mainstream and vice versa. Can you see Atmosphere on Roc-a-fella? I can. I'd love it.

(I realize this is simplistic - it avoids people like Outkast and Bubba Sparxxx and the Ying Yang Twins who are taking mainstream hip-hop in wildly divergent directions. And it avoids underground veteran types like Heiro who have stayed underground and managed to ride quite comfortably on their reputations. There is more to hip-hop than the underground/overground dichotomy, but that split is there, and it's huge, and it's becoming a black/white split, and that sucks.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

The slush puddles in downtown Baltimore right now are no joke. I just stepped out for lunch, and now I feel like hanging my socks up to dry.

Bumming me out right now: the January entertainment drought. It comes every year, but it's hitting especially hard right now. I know it's not the end of the world or anything, but shit is just awful right now. There is nothing on TV, nothing in the movies, no albums coming out, no shows coming through town. There aren't even any hot shows with local bands coming up. Looking at the Ottobar schedule is just not a fun thing to do (Sage Francis in February, Blonde Redhead in April, and, um, that's it). Why does every band stay home in winter? Why doesn't anyone crank out an album or put out a halfway decent movie? Don't people realize there's a killing to be made? People are bored! But then again, Monster is out and I'm not even sure if I want to see it. And I'm definitely stopping by the record store after work to cop the new Air. But I'm a music critic, and I don't even feel like writing right now. I need inspiration bad.

Pissing me off right now: people shitting on Howard Dean for that speech in Iowa (though the Lil Jon MP3 mix is stupid funny). My best friend told me last week that he thinks Dean is crazy. Apparently the people of New Hampshire agree. I haven't been of voting age for all that long, but Howard Dean is the first politician I've been able to vote for who actually stands some chance of winning major office who has excited me. At all. And we're throwing him away like garbage because he got fired up giving a speech. Heaven forbid we have a presidential candidate who shows any enthusiasm. That is bullshit. I call bullshit.

Friday, January 16, 2004

The good part of working 9-to-5 is that I'm amazed to find that I am now perfectly able to drop $100 on four CDs and a book from The CDs and book finally arrived yesterday: the new joints from Michael Mayer, Luomo, Mu, M83, and Paul Morley. Can't tell you how sophisticated and European I feel listening to this stuff. And the bit at the end of Mu's "Why I Left" where the piano and the vwerp-vwerp-vwerp computer noises play the same notes makes me think of Sammy Davis, Jr. dancing in a tuxedo with the bowtie undone and a martini in his hand while the giant gatling-gun robot from Robocop clumsily does the same steps behind him, a fraction of a step off the beat. If Mu gave me a giant pile of money to make them a video, that's what would happen.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

I guess maybe what I meant to say with that last post is that working nine to five utterly sucks ass. It's boring and stupid, and maybe it makes you (you meaning me) boring and stupid.

Also, Nick Hornby is wrong.

My friend Matt Eckel just sent me an e-mail. I know Matt from college; he moved to Los Angeles right after graduating, and he runs a zine there called Beg, Borrow or Steal. I wrote something for his first issue, and I've been meaning to write more, but I haven't because I'm a chump. Anyway, Matt's e-mail was like two sentences long, and the only thing it really said was that all his friends should see All the Pretty Girls. I saw All the Pretty Girls. It was OK. But I sent back an e-mail that All the Pretty Girls could not fuck with Freddy vs. Jason.

It's funny; I haven't seen Matt since we graduated from college almost two years ago. Maybe two years ago I would have loved All the Pretty Girls. It's pretty and well-written and all that stuff. But lately I have no patience for slow, talky movies with lots of meaningful silences and lyricism and whatnot. I just can't deal. I get bored and fidgety and want to turn off the movie and see if maybe Cribs is on. The one big exception I can think of is Lost in Translation, my favorite movie of last year, which was slow and moving and lyrical and basically eventless - I have to conclude that I loved it because it has cool songs on the soundtrack and Scarlet Johanssen is hott and Bill Murray is funny and there are lots of big, pretty, shiny lights. I must've become some sort of philistine who can't appreciate a good story unless it's got a whole lot of whizjets attached.

A couple of years ago, Nick Hornby wrote a review of Kid A for the New Yorker where he said that adults didn't have time for Kid A because it was all fractured and dissonant and vague and adults have jobs and bills and don't have time for that shit. He said it was, essentially, an album for teenage boys with lots of time on their hands. (I don't think I ever read this review, but that's what I've heard/read about it, anyway.) Now, I like Kid A. I'm totally cool with music that doesn't have a lot of immediacy. Books, too. Lately I've really been enjoying Cat Power's You Are Free and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, both of which are relatively free of pyrotechnics. But movies feel different for me. I've just lost my patience. I've got a job and bills and stuff, and I just don't have time for all those symbolic gazes and cryptic dialogues. When I'm watching something on TV, I need Jason twisting some dude's head around backwards or Jon Stewart making funny faces. If Kid A were a movie, I'd probably hate it.

Now, a couple of years ago, there were a lot of things that I liked (emo) or tolerated (not having sex) that I just could not deal with today if they were part of my life, which thankfully they aren't. But I kinda wish I could still like unassuming movies. A couple of nights ago, Bridget and I watched Before Sunrise on cable, and I was totally surprised to love it. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Lost in Translation; it had the benefit of pretty people and a pretty location and one of those desperate-romantic wistful love stories that always seem to get me. But why was I surprised to like it? What's my problem?

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

I'm sick of listing all these shows. It's boring. I'm not going to do it anymore.

This article about Tricia Rose (courtesy of Julianne Shepard's blog) really got me thinking, specifically Rose's ideas about "aggressive space" and "unfettered whiteness." Maybe part of the reason why I was never really comfortable in high school is that I went from the overwhelmingly black environment of Baltimore City (even though it was diluted by the whiteness of my family and schooling) to the overwhelmingly white environment of suburban Ellicott City. Seems like most people who only experienced this suburban unfettered whiteness for their entire lives (like most of the people I knew in high school and college) are entirely comfortable in this environment, even if they move to large cities later, as many of them do. I can get sort of antsy around all that. It doesn't feel quite right. And it especially didn't feel right through high school and college. The only place in high school where I really did feel comfortable was in the crustyish punk subculture, which is largely based on the fetishization of its own white suburban middle-class guilt. I think I feel this guilt more acutely than most of the people I've known in the past ten years. And I think this puts me at a weird life advantage. I'm happy that I can't get too comfortable. I'm attracted to the idea of the white-bohemian ghetto/utopia (it's how I imagine Olympia, where I've never been), but I don't know if I could ever really live in a place like that. This whole unfettered whiteness thing might also be what annoys me so much about certain strains of indie-rock. I've never heard the Decemberists or Broken Social Scene, but I just can't imagine liking them. All that shit just seems so - twee isn't the word - comfortable. Lazy and comfortable. Fat and lazy.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

So I just turned in an unsolicited P&J ballot. Let's see what happens.

Allow me to big up the best piece of music journalism I've read in quite a while: Jessica Hopper's interview with Slug in the new Punk Planet.

Allow me also to big up the best piece of music journalism journalism I've read in quite some time: Jeff Chang's bitchslap of the Da Capo Best Music Writing series. I've read every single one of those books, and I was so amped when they started appearing. It seems like such a lost opportunity that they've never managed to avoid being more of a Best Old Men Writing About Really Really Old Music series. The new volume has something like two articles about music made by people who are now under 40: one about Straight Outta Compton, a certifiably old album, and one snarky one about a teenpop singer. (I haven't quite finished the book yet, but I'm not really holding out a lot of hope for the last 40 pages or so.) There are great articles in every book, but I can't help but think that most of my peers could do a better job than the marquee-name types that end up doing it.

I should acknowledge that this whole show-I-liked roundup is a complete bite of something Julianne Shepard did on her blog last week.

Big Huge/Long Live Death - someone's house 3/21/03
One of the coolest things that's been going on in Baltimore this past year has been the weirdo folk revival. For the uninitiated, all these guys who have been in indie and noise rock bands all of a sudden decided to start playing different variations on traditional folk music at house parties and art spaces all over town. It probably started in '02, but this show was my first real exposure to the new scene in all its glory. Long Live Death is a loose-ish collective of people (including all three Oxes at different times) who get together and play this awesome psychedelic gospel gothic folk. They play clubs a lot, but they really shine in house parties, and this was probably the best show I've seen them play. They were in the middle of the living room, with people lined up all around the room and up the stairs watching them. And they'd handed out tambourines and castanets in the audience. I'd seen them three or four times before this show, but this was where I figured out that they weren't a joke. The Big Huge is Drew Nelson, who used to be in Torn Apart and Sonna, and he plays fragile acoustic British-traditional-style folk. His stuff is really gorgeous. I wrote an article about him for the City Paper that should have run today, but they didn't get a chance to get a picture of him for the article, so it'll run some time in the unspecified future.

Har Mar Superstar/Sole/Grand Buffet - Ottobar 3/30/03
This was a really weird show of diminishing returns. I love Grand Buffet; they've become one of my absolute favorite bands in the world over the past couple of years. They're two white rappers from Pittsburgh with an incredibly, viscerally entertaining live show, enormous hooks, and a wicked sense of humor. Their new EP Pittsburgh Hearts is the second-best album of the year behind the Postal Service joint. (I count EP's as albums, not singles.) The war had just broken out, and Grand Buffet was firing on all levels tonight with the most straight-faced display of ironic patriotism I've ever witnessed. (Their patriotism actually isn't ironic - they love them some America - but they still use it as a humor weapon to skewer conservatives more effectively that the serious types usually do.) Sole, who I quite like, was also good, though not as good as Grand Buffet. I like Sole on a very different level than Jay-Z or Ludacris or even Atmosphere; his records are total proggy cathartic immersion things; Rjyan compares them to Peter Gabriel. His live show has fire and passion and all that "authentic" stuff that I'm supposed to see right through but can't help still liking, if that makes sense. I like over-the-top sincerity in music; sue me. Over the top insincerity, however, is really hit-or-miss, and Har Mar Superstar is the worst example of it I can imagine. Half the crowd was smart enough to leave before he came on, and the other half left pretty quickly. He was drunk off his ass and insulting the audience even before he started singing. I thought maybe he'd be kinda fun, but he treated everyone with absolute contempt, dancing badly and begging random people for coke. A really fascinating train wreck, but I was not at all sorry when his label dropped him a month or so later. I wonder if someone got paid to throw him on this otherwise great bill.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs/Kills/Ex-Models - Black Cat 4/6/03
There's nothing new that I could possibly say about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, so I'll just say that I like them. They have good catchy shows and a fun live show. They are A-OK in my book. The Kills, who were stunningly boring a few months later in the early afternoon outside at the Siren Festival, sounded really dark and compelling and good in the Black Cat. And the Ex-Models, who sucked when I saw them in '02 at the Ottobar, sucked again. You can't win em all.

Monday, January 05, 2004

So today is the cut-off day for turning in P&J ballots, apparently, and I never got one. Sucks. I guess maybe I'll get on next year. Maybe I just need to hustle more. Remember all that stuff I said about how I'm good enough and I need to get my grind on and get published a few more places? Guess how much of that I've done. Still, it feels like getting picked last for kickball. Again.

Anyway, someone at least wants my top ten for the year. Here's the write-up.

I haven't been on this blog in a hot minute because I took a week and a half off for the holidays, which was pretty effing great. Christmas was fun, new years was tight, and now I'm back at work again.

2003 was the best year of my life, by far, for reasons that really have nothing to do with writing or music. But I had a lot of fun with writing and music this year, which definitely counts for something. Here are some shows I really liked this year, in chronological order.

Blonde Redhead/Ted Leo RX/El Guapo - Black Cat 1/30
Blonde Redhead is crazy gorgeous. They kept saying they were working on a record, and I've heard absolutely nothing about that, so maybe they're broken up or something. But everything I like about them was completely on display here. Ted Leo and El Guapo were fun, and some metal band with Joe Lally played one ridiculously awesome song and one boring one. And the show felt like an event, a rarity these days. I should probably go to shows in DC more often, but DC is gross.

Q and Not U/Organ Donors Bass Orchestra - Talking Head 2/13
This was the only time I've ever heard the Organ Donors, who are supposed to be great because they treat every show as a new opportunity for performance art chaos. Whatever, this bass orchestra thing was annoying as hell. Just 15 dudes onstage playing nothing but bass. Absolute self-indulgent crap. But Q and Not U was great; they were passionate and cathartic and hypnotic and everything that a good young post-punk band should be. I saw them play later in the year at the Ottobar and was not nearly as impressed, probably because of the sparse, passive crowd. Everyone was into it at the Talking Head, which makes me wish the bookers there would pull their heads out of their asses and book more bands like this instead of their cousin's friend's band that no one wants to see.

Godspeed You Black Emperor/Black Dice - Masonic Temple 3/5
Another one of those rare event shows. It seemed like just about everyone I knew came out for this one, and it was in a fucking Masonic Temple, this intimidating, huge domed thing I've driven past for years but never been inside. The Masons were nice. And they had weird sympols everywhere. Black Dice was ass, which should surprise no one. But Godspeed was amazing, one of the best bands I saw all year. I usually can't get into instrumental music live, but something in the air was just right, and when the word "hope" came up on their projector screen at the end it seemed perfect. This little exercise is making me painfully aware of how impossible it is to perfectly describe a great live show (especially months after the fact). Godspeed hit emotional buttons, and I wish I could recreate them through words somehow, but I can't. Maybe that's why I'm not voting In Pazz & Jop this year.

Anyway, I have to pee and it's just about 4:30 anyway, so part 2 tomorrow.