Monday, May 30, 2011

OK Go's Master Plan and Why It Doesn't Quite Work

Up until very recently, the record industry played a dominant role in the music that you and I were exposed to.  This is not news: it has been the case ever since the industry’s inception, when flour companies began to buy air time on radio stations for their sponsored artists.  The role of the industry has been a bane from the artist’s perspective, because the kind of relationships that foster mass airplay are often based less on artistic merit and more on knowing the right person at the right time.  From another perspective, however, mass mediation provides a widely dispersed audience a common ground of experience.  Being a teenager in a certain demographic during the 80s assumes at least a passing knowledge of Duran Duran, children of the 90s relate similarly through Nirvana, and people from opposite sides of the globe can relate to each other through the seemingly omnipresent Beatles catalog.

The advent of MP3, however, sent the record industry scrambling for a new model, and dismantled its ubiquitous narrative.  A new environment exists now in which independent artists have more control over their overall visibility, and the listener who is willing to invest in a little research can find great music by groups whose voices would have never reached past their local scene.  With all voices available through multiple mediums, however, the common ground of musical experience has become more chaotic, at least for me. 

I wonder if it is possible for a singularly influential pop music phenomenon like the Beatles or Nirvana to arise in this new environment.  If so, the visibility of such a group could not be confined to mere record sales, or television appearances.  Instead, they would need a mastery of in all of these mediums and a viral online presence as vehicles for innovation.  OK Go is one of several bands that are creeping towards this model.

Like many, I found out about them through their innovative online presence.  They were among the first to have a self-made video go viral, and they have continued to rely on their low-budget but consistently creative videos to propel their career by centripetally drawing in listeners.  The one that really hooked me was this one.

Of the Blue Colour of the SkyI genuinely never get tired of this video.  I’m a particularly big fan of the guest-starring duck that shows up at 3:17.  I watched and shared End Love enough times that I finally decided to purchase its attendant album The Colour of the Blue Sky, which was the first one by OK Go that found its way into the player.  I was surprised to find that End Love’s obvious homage to Prince spills over into the entire album.  Obviously, they did their homework – check it out this classic with that video still ringing in your ears……

The unfortunate part of OK Go’s strategy is that the album as a whole does not pay off.  The Colour of the Blue Sky is wildly inconsistent.  It starts very strong with WTF and This Too Shall Pass, (both of which have been released with their own infectiously creative videos) followed by several tracks that are obvious filler.  After End Love, it’s almost like OK Go gives up, rendering the rest of the album a tedious listen at best.  Somehow, Prince’s b-sides seem brilliant, but OK Go’s attempts to recreate them seem grating.

If the band could release an album’s worth of material that held the same high standard as “The Colour of the Blue Sky’s” best tracks, I think that their media status would provide them with the clout to be far more influential.  Even so, their work has come to have pretty significant value as cultural currency.  Certainly, many of us common folk get a kick out of talking about them and their videos, which is where a lot of the pleasure found in popular media lies.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Getting Through the Month of May - Plus!

My apologies for the inconsistent postings in May, but this has been a rough, rough month.  In addition to being incredibly busy at work with end-of-year concerts and field trips, we moved.  Having time to sit down and write something, anything at all, has been difficult, and even more so due to lack of regular internet connection during the move.  The move, however, marks the end of the “Far West Years.”

Its interesting, because as that chapter closes, I can almost immediately look back on it and see the music that defined that time.  I will reveal these as they come, but what this post should cover is the actual soundtrack to the move.  Many of these albums I have posted on already, but as time passes, these quick catch-ups give me the opportunity to express how my relationship with each album has evolved, as well as introducing new or returning players.

Radiohead – The King of Limbs: Quite simply put, a serious contender for album of the year.  Its been playing for nearly two months straight and I am not close to tired of it – but I am taking it out by force to preserve it.

The Foo Fighters – Wasting Light: As much as I have listened to it, I am afraid that by the time the media is done with it, I will be sick of it.  It’s a great album that may get drug through the mud, but will also continue to firm up the Foo Fighter’s status as contemporary rock gods.

The Beastie Boys – The Hot Sauce Committee Part 2: It’s been since “Hello, Nasty” since I have gotten into a Beastie Boys album, and I think that The Hot Sauce Committee beats it out.  It has a distinctively retro ambience, but it also comes across as cutting edge – historically, the Boys are good at juggling this dichotomy.

Ben Butler and Mousepad – Formed for Fantasy: The full album by the band I discovered in February at the coldest show ever keeps ending back up in the player.  I don’t think it is perfect, but there is a whole lot about it I like.

Toe – An Idle Plot about a Vague Anxiety: Out of all of the instrumental Japanese music I was listening to earlier this year, this one deserved a revisit.  Its moody and intricate dual guitar textures conceal an emotional side that slowly reveals itself upon repeated listening.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues:  More intricate than their first while retaining its unique ambience, as if Simon and Garfunkel had joined Yes.  I had a really good discussion with a reader about the social context that subtly circumscribes this album.

Dredg – Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy:  Last year I was kind of into El Cielo, one of their earlier albums, but this new release has failed to impress me.  One thing you can do to turn me off is write a song in which the main melody just doubles the bass line – that shows up here a couple of times. 

TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light:  This band is usually incomprehensible to me at first, simply because they are pretty unique.  I finally decided that I liked this album this week, after listening to it for almost a month straight. 

Gogol Bordello – Super Taranta:  The lyrics on this album address globalization issues in a first-hand narrative, delivered in an energetic blend of punk and Gypsy styles.  Its also quite a bit of tounge-in-cheek fun.

The Dead Kenny G’s – Operation Long Leash:  It seems like this uniquely adventurous jazz-punk project has become somewhat of a phenomenon in certain circles.  John Zorn meets Frank Zappa in a world-music setting – with just three players!

And as a bonus:
When I began adding playlists to the roundup posts, I got a lot of positive feedback.  A couple of people have even said that they sometimes play them in the background during the day, so to beef up this roundup, I have a bonus.  We just got back from a roadtrip to Denton, so I am combining that roundup with the monthly May post.

OK Go – The Blue Colour of the Sky: Dear OK Go, Prince called, and he wants his sound back.  This is wildly inconsistent recording whose high points make the low points almost unbearable.

Fleetwood Mac – Rumors:   I spontaneously purchased this album during the move.  I have never heard it in its entirety, and I think it probably deserves its classic status. 

E.T. Mensah & The Tempos – All for You:  A fascinating compilation of 1950s West African highlife.  If I were still teaching High School jazz, I’d be transcribing these tunes to widen the band’s “ethnic” palette.

Transatlantic – The Whirlwind:  This supergroup deserves their own post.  I think that this album, however, is their most consistent and impressive effort.

MuteMath – Armistice:  In a sense, their second album captures a lot of what was good about the first.  A bit of the magic is missing, though – like they are somehow constrained by their previous success.

Mouse on the Keys – An Anxious Object:  Their full release veers a little more clearly into atmospheric jazz realms than the Sezzions EP.  As a result, I’m not sure its quite as distinctive, but time may change that opinion. 

The Waxwings – Low to the Ground:  A good, consistent power pop album that has been sitting on the shelf for awhile.  It sounded particularly good on the road with the windows up (hot afternoon, what can I say – It’s Texas!).

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Summer 2010: Japanese Class, MuteMath, and Imogen Heap

Last summer, I was operating with a pretty significant amount of momentum that I had built up in the process of finishing my ethnomusicology degree.  Time and again, people had asked me what I was going to do without that thesis hanging over my head, and even after it was done, I was still not sure.  I knew, however, that any future academic work would most likely focus on Japanese music and that gaining a command of the language would be an important component of that study.  Therefore, for “fun,” I took Japanese I at Austin Community College during the first summer session – confusing stuff!

MutemathSummer sessions can be pretty intensive, especially language courses.  I was going to class four days a week for several hours a day and studying a lot.  Most of the music I was listening to revolves around this experience, driving to and from class practicing the elusive phonetic combination of “L” and “R” that characterizes proper Japanese pronunciation.  Even after the class ended and I geared up for the school year, however, there were two albums, MuteMath and Imogen Heap’s Ellipse that held my attention, remained in the player for the entire summer break, and eventually made my end-of-year top 10 list.
I believe MuteMath came to my attention through Pandora, but ultimately I bought their debut on a bit of a whim during a Waterloo Records browsing session.  It was the first in the CD changer, and before I had turned three corners, I knew I had something special. 

On album, MuteMath is reminiscent of the 80s, but in terms of performance style rather than production.  In retrospect, a distinctive studio polish now defines this era, but there was also a playing style in the early 80s characterized by pre-Joshua Tree U2 and the Police.  MuteMath captures the vitality and energy of these bands in their heyday.  In addition to writing catchy, often frenetic tunes, MuteMath also has an instrumental aspect that indicates an experimental side.  Clips of their live shows were the clincher.

Another live clip led me to the second artist of summer 2010.  For a little while, I was interested in getting into looping for Chapman Stick, and I ran across this frankly amazing performance.

Unlike MuteMath, Imogen Heap hovered on the edge of my awareness for awhile before I purchased Ellipse.  After a little simmering, it ended up as my 2010 Album of the Year.  In the most superficial sense, I would compare it favorably to the best work of Peter Gabriel.  In a deeper sense, Heap distills the best features of many of my favorite female artists into a cohesive and unique feminist identity.  At the very least, she has the adventurousness of Kate Bush, the electronic eclecticism of Bjork and Laurie Anderson, and the street-level storytelling approach of Suzanne Vega.  Additionally, she also exemplifies the new breed of synthesist, whose virtuosity blurs the lines between technique and technology. 

Ellipse seems to move me no matter how many times I listen to it because, although it is entertaining, it also often makes a point.  It is a satisfying listen on many levels.  When I did my end-of-year review, I found myself caught up in it again and even now I find the consistency and depth of the recording astounding.   

It seemed appropriate to capture these two winners as summer 2011 approaches and even more changes (which I will hit on the end-of-month roundup) occur.  It’ll be interesting to have you all on board for them….

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Theme Songs: The Foos vs. Phil Collins

I learned to read in the pages of Spider-Man comics, so it probably goes without saying that I hotly anticipate the upcoming slate of superhero movies.  A couple of weeks ago, Thor was released and I made good on my determined resolution to see it on opening weekend.   I did not specifically follow Thor as a kid, but Marvel was generally my comic company of choice and this character played a large role in that universe.  The most fundamental premise of a movie about Thor requires the filmmaker to bring Norse gods to life in an everyday world, and because of this I think a Thor movie is an incredibly ambitious undertaking.  In this case of this particular release, however, the end result was pretty successful.  The product placement was pretty shameless, though.  Especially in 3-D - I felt a little attacked by a Kashi Go Lean box at one point. 

At another point in the movie, Thor and another character were having a conversation in a bar, and I noticed that the “jukebox” in the background was playing a song that I found immediately familiar.

Walk is among the strongest offerings on the consistently strong Wasting Light, but I don't see that it has any conceptual relevance to the movie.  The song appeared as ambient background music in the aforementioned scene, and re-emerged during the ending credits, but its lyrical and musical contribution to the move was minimal at best.  I have a distinct feeling that it was not written for Thor, but was instead appropriated as a way of tying it to other arenas of commodified popular culture.    

The inclusion of Walk as a featured song in Thor felt like another instance of product placement, which has caused my perception of Wasting Light as a whole to subtly (and negatively) shift away from its artistic merits towards its potential as commodity.  Undoubtedly, viewing music as something to be bought and sold is a standard practice.  When I feel that this perspective emerges as the primary impetus for creating new music, however, it challenges the image of steadfast integrity that I admittedly (and delusionally) project onto my favorite artists.   

I think that songs can strongly set the stage for a movie’s narrative, though, especially if they were written specifically with the movie in mind.  Sometimes, songs that play this role end up being stand-out tracks in an artist’s overall oeuvre.  Some of the best work of well-established artists such as Paul McCartney, Duran Duran, Chris Cornell, and many other artists were the result of providing theme songs to James Bond movies.  This song immediately comes to mind as an example:

It's OK, Phil.  You were only playing in front of billions of people....we all make mistakes.

Arguably, Against All Odds the song was quite a bit stronger than its attendant movie.  In fact, I don’t know anyone who has actually seen it.  Regardless, although the song was written independently from a specific album, it is a landmark in Collins’ career.  It represents a turning point in his writing away from the atmospheric theatrics of In the Air Tonight towards the appropriated whiteboy soul of Sussudio a few years later – and perhaps towards Collins’ increased perception of his own music as commodity as he evolved into one of the prominent songwriters of the 80s. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Beach Boys of Winter: The Fleet Foxes

The move to Austin in 2008 was a particularly traumatic one.  On the weekdays I was commuting from Carrollton to Denton for work and school and to Austin on the weekends to visit my soon-to-be wife.  At the same time, I was selling a house during a panicked recession, writing my thesis, and generally coming to terms with myself.  I despise the feeling of chaos that moving brings, but in this particular case, I think that being unseated in such a way gave me the opportunity to be more contemplative and reflective than usual. 

Both in the car and in the nearly empty house, The Fleet Foxes was playing non-stop during this introspective end of the "Carrollton Period."  There was a buzz surrounding this band online when their debut album was released, but it was this video that sold me.

White Winter Hymnal is immediately haunting and engaging, characteristics that spill over into the entirety of Fleet Foxes.  These qualities are very, very difficult to describe, and it was a struggle to write a review on Amazon that really captured how I was experiencing the album's nearly instantaneous nostalgia.  Another reviewer, however, simply described the Fleet Foxes as “The Beach Boys of Winter,” which has stuck for me ever since (can't take credit for it, though).

Although the Beach Boys metaphor is generally appropriate in regards to the obvious vocal prowess of the Fleet Foxes, I also interpret it as a specific reference to Pet Sounds.  There is a complex history and many assumptions surrounding this album, but in short, it was Brian Wilson at his creative and expressive peak.  It is a singularly unique entry in the Beach Boys canon, and even if you normally don’t like the band, it is difficult not to at least appreciate its childlike exuberance.

Granted, the similarity between the two albums is not measureable.  Undoubtedly there is a lot about the Fleet Foxes that says “campfire” rather than “surf’s up.”  There is something passionate and intimate that both albums capture, however, that is, to me, perhaps inexplicable but intuitively palpable.   
Earlier this month, the Fleet Foxes’ second album, Helplessness Blues, was released, and is becoming the soundtrack to a current, but far less stressful, move.  This recent effort is perhaps a bit more experimental and opaque than their debut.  It does not, however, eschew the evocative ambience that I associate with the band.

For the sake of accessibility, I might suggest their debut as an introduction.  If you are already a fan, however, I think that Helplessness Blues will similarly capture your interest, and it will probably stand on its own quite well as a starting point.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"EthnoPunk" with Flogging Molly and Gogol Bordello

When styles of music collide and create something unique, some pre-existing common ground is most likely already in place.  At its inception in the late 70s, punk emerged in opposition to “the establishment,” and its anti-authoritarian ideology has proven to be fertile ground for the emergence of other cross-cultural styles.  In particular, its characteristically frenzied approach has encouraged musicians who play in styles associated with other marginalized cultures to turn up the volume and play louder in order to be heard.
SwaggerFor example, I got hip to Flogging Molly a couple of years ago on the first Weeds soundtrack.  On the suggestion of a friend, I picked up Swagger, a collection of fiery jigs and plaintive ballads that set pennywhistle and accordion in opposition to aggressive drums and distorted guitar.  Although the face of Flogging Molly’s music is bright, it hides a dark lyric undercurrent.  Lyrically, they imply the discrimination that the Irish have historically endured by singing the blues in the most Irish way - by confrontationally laughing in the face of one's trials. 

It is also easy to see that overlapping styles allow Flogging Molly to be simultaneously both “punk” and “Irish” while subtly rebelling against both by being neither.  With the proper amplification, the hyperactive Irish jig becomes highly moshable, creating what is undoubtedly a high-impact St. Patrick’s Day experience.

What Flogging Molly does with Irish/Celtic music, Gogol Bordello does for Eastern European “Gypsy” music.  This ethnic group has a history of persecution that dates far back into history, but as much they are maligned they are simultaneously revered for their ingenuity and musical ability.  Gypsy music is a fluid yet distinctive mishmash of Persian and European styles with a decidedly hedonistic and virtuosic undertone.  Gogol Bordello captures this with frenetic vigor. 

Super Taranta!After having several unrelated conversations about the band with various people, I finally put Super Taranta! in the player today.  Fine, you told me so - Its awesome.  Did I mention I am stubborn?  Anyhow, Gogol Bordello modifies and updates the polka and the tarantella in a way that allows them to retain the music’s dance-party roots.  Although their obvious virtuosity may challenge the DIY aesthetic, I think that a straight line can still be traced from Gogol Bordello's singalong sideshow to punk’s anti-establishment ideology as well as its volatile musical style.  

For a more "authentic" glimpse of the so-called "Gypsy" style, as a parting gift, I refer you again to Taraf de Haidouks.  This one sounds like a bird trying to tell you your house is on fire after drinking a case of Red Bull.  Hold on to your seat.