Monday, March 27, 2017

David Lynch, The Chanteuse, and Gaye Su Akyol

It was probably around 1991 when I purchased the full Twin Peaks series box set on VHS. At that point, I had never seen the show, but was my intention to watch it in Denton while a couple of close friends from High School simultaneously watched it in Austin. In theory, we agreed to watch an episode a week and have discussions when we visited every few weeks. In practice, none of us had any idea how addictive the show would be. We quickly became prototypical “binge-watchers,” secretly going ahead with “just one more episode.” Our plan to watch the show over the course of months barely lasted a week, but our respect and interest in the work of David Lynch stretched out into the decades to follow.

After Twin Peaks, I followed Lynch’s work unwaveringly, and I started to notice that some images and events recur in his work. I started to give them pet names: The Transformation, the Jagged Carpet, The Scream, etc. These Lynchian tropes seemed symbolic in a way similar to Salvador Dali’s use of melting clocks and ants as surrealistic images. In an attempt to give this armchair analysis of his work some credence, I often referred to these as Lynch’s “iconography.”

One role I named “The Chanteuse.” It takes the form of a lip-synched musical performance, almost (but not always) performed by a female actor in a private late-night setting. In Twin Peaks, this character was represented by Juliee Cruise, but it shows up in nearly all of David Lynch’s films in one form or another. In 2001’s Mulholland Drive, for example, he goes so far as to acknowledge the symbolic nature of this character, providing some uncharacteristic insight as to its meaning.

Lynch is gearing up to be back in the spotlight again with the imminent release of the new Twin Peaks season this coming May. Suffice it to say that I am extremely excited. If the hints that we have gotten through the show’s casting are any indication, the role of The Chanteuse might very well be played by Austin musician Chrysta Bell. Which is great - Bell is an incredible artist that fits the aesthetic perfectly. If the Twin Peaks revival is the beginning of a new creative arc, however, I would make a case to Mr. Lynch to consider the Turkish art-rocker Gaye Su Akyol for a future incarnation of The Chanteuse. 

Gaye Su Akyol’s most recent release Hologram Imperatorlugu is an engaging blend of gypsy-flavored tradition and twangy guitar rock that seems ready-made to plug into one of David Lynch’s late-night soirees. Her image fits seamlessly within the already established characteristics of the role.  Not only does her music blend “otherness” with familiarity, Gaye Su Akgol also captures the aloof distance that The Chanteuse almost always exudes. Bubituzak, her backing band, extends the sense of mystery by performing in cyptic black masks.  It is not a stretch to envision her performing to an enthralled audience teetering on the brink of an otherworldly encounter.

I feel pretty certain, however, that Chrysta Bell has a lock on the role for the new Twin Peaks episodes. I am grateful in any case, because I never realistically thought that I would see a continuation of the Twin Peaks series. Her presence in the cast is particularly exciting because it suggests that Lynch might be as interested in injecting new blood into the show as he is in revisiting the things that made it so engaging in the first place. This makes me think that Gaye Su Akyol could not only play the part of The Chanteuse in the future, but also could contribute to its continued evolution by diversifying its cultural background even further.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Spring Break Roundup: A Com-PLEX Issue

My PS3 had been dying a slow death for over a year, and somewhere during the move to Denton it finally bit the dust. Although I don’t game very much, I used the console as the central entertainment unit in our house for playing music and streaming video. I embedded a PS4 in our move-in purchases and was horrified to find the PS4 doesn’t support the CD format - at all. There is a Blu-Ray player on the console that is entirely capable of reading music CDs, but it just doesn’t.

My past method of uploading CD’s into the console hard drive for play in the house simply would not work, and this was a very serious problem of the first-world variety. I have known for a long time that the CD is a dying format, but to suddenly not be able to play them in the house at all seemed unconscionable. Due to limited libraries and unethical artist compensation policies, I refused to submit to Spotify or Amazon Prime. I just needed access to my own library. After quite a bit of soul-searching and scrolling through PS4 forums, the answer came in the form of an app called Plex.

Plex allows me to use my computer as a media server and stream my music straight to the PS4, giving me open access to all the music on my computer. Not only that, it painlessly and beautifully organizes albums, displays cover art, and manages playlists. Despite having a few minor bugs, Plex really changed the game for me. I uploaded the entire Superhero Theme Project, complete with track-specific images, and created playlists based on my end-of-year best of posts from the last six years.

Over Spring Break, I ripped CDs to my computer with the renewed vigor of a full-fledged music nerd. Several of these albums are currently in rotation in the car, which represents my listening since my birthday. My birthday was actually at the end of January but, due to some date confusion, I got a second stack of albums at the end of February, too. Not a bad deal.

The Flaming Lips - Oczy Mlody: There is a lot to like about the album, but it wanders. I am still not sure if The Flaming Lips’ current direction has a larger point to make that I just haven’t locked into or if they are just being weird for the sake of being weird.

Run the Jewels - RTJ3: RTJ3 definitely picks up where its predecessor left off, but doesn’t seem to have the standout tracks that kept me coming back to RTJ2. It took me months to really appreciate RTJ2, however, so I will let this one simmer for a while.

The Neal Morse Band - The Similitude of a Dream: I am a huge fan of Neal Morse but, paradoxically, not a devoted follower of his solo work. This album garnered great critical praise, most of which is deserved, but there are a few “tribute band” moments that I have to accept.

The xx - I See You: The xx’s debut album played a big, big role in my soundtrack for 2010, but the follow-up Coexxist seemed like more of the same, but not quite as good. I See You doesn’t change the formula, but it does contain enough new elements to stand on its own and still capture the vibe that made their debut so great.

Gaye Su Akyol - Hologram Imperatorlagu: Really great Turkish artist that very effectively syncretizes Western rock and traditional ideas. David Lynch should pick her up as his new chanteuse.

The Dirty Projectors - Dirty Projectors: The mixed reviews that this album have received are, unfortunately, well deserved. Mixed is the key - it teeters between jumbled genius and obvious self-indulgence, which runs counter to the consistency of its predecessor.

Astronoid - Air: Stumbled across this “dream thrash” group and have been really impressed with it after several listens. Its Mew meets Deafheaven vibe is pretty unique amongst my listening right now.

Jóhann Jóhannsson - Arrival OST: Knowing that I will most likely watch this movie sometime, I looked into this soundtrack and discovered that Jóhannsson is a pretty interesting composer with an intriguing body of work. While the Arrival soundtrack may not reach the great heights of Interstellar, it immediately commanded my attention and has held it for weeks.

The Proper Ornaments - Foxhole: This album sits at the crossroads of pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd and late 90s power pop mush. It’s an entertaining background listen, but doesn’t offer up much in the way of innovation.

The Devin Townsend Project - Transcendence: I gained respect for Devin Townsend’s vocal talents way back when he sang lead for Steve Vai’s ill-fated “Vai” group. Here he is unapologetically epic and bombastic in all the right ways.

The Who - Tommy: I have had Tommy since high school, but other entries in the Who’s catalog have traditionally held favor with me. Not so this time, as the album’s compositional genius and far-reaching influence seems more clear than ever before.

United Vibrations - The Myth of the Golden Ratio: Like its name implies, Universal Vibrations gets all of their influences into just the right balance to create something exciting and distinctive. It has the jazzy, political rock side of Dream of the Blue Turtles, but with a distinctive Afrobeat flavor.

Yussef Kamaal - Black Focus: An engaging foray into contemporary jazz/soul/funk that shared quite a bit of airtime in the house during Spring Break. I am looking forward to a more focused listening in the coming weeks.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Flaming Lips' "Oczy Mlody:" A Non-Euclidean Escape

I watched Obama’s election as I was moving to Austin from Carrollton with no small amount of anticipation and excitement, and when he won the Presidency the world felt different. Although might have been inexperienced at the time, I had some conviction that he had the best interests of the country at heart, an opinion that did not change much during his tenure. I was proud to be an American and was genuinely hopeful about the future.

This inauguration, conversely, filled me with dread. I felt, and still feel, anxious about the natural and social environment that my kids will be looking at in the near and far future. Like many, I have traveled through stages in dealing with this new reality, so during my denial phase I made it my goal to avoid the inauguration entirely to keep the ratings down. This may seem escapist, but I justified it by showing my lack of support in any way possible. The same weekend, I put Oczy Mlody in rotation.

There seemed to be no better way to escape reality than to sink into the soft non-euclidean psychedelia of The Flaming Lips. Very few bands have been able to retain both a modicum of visibility and the kind of artistic freedom that The Flaming Lips enjoy. They could literally put out an album of duck sounds and people would at least take notice. That being said, I was on the fence about this one.

In the band’s primary narrative, there has been an attempt to collapse their experimental side with mainstream songwriting in search of a singular, cohesive statement. This, I like. Simultaneously, however, they have been diversifying in ways that aren’t as convincing, releasing shark-jumping cover albums and collaborations. Despite my long-term investment in the band, these recent releases made me consider taking a pass on Oczy Mlody. The video for The Castle, however, immediately sold me.

Oczy Mlody is the first “proper” Flaming Lips album since The Terror, which took darker themes and washed them over with buzzy experimentalism. In comparison, Oczy Mlody juxtaposes brighter, trippy songs against psychedelic sound experiments. This approach allows them to incorporate a broad spectrum of sounds that they have explored in other non-traditional formats, from multi-jambox CD releases to flash drives released in gummi skulls.

But I see The Flaming Lips as primarily an album band. For decades, they have released consistently coherent recordings that are best digested as a whole, rather than as a collection of singles. Oczy Mlody is impressively strong in this regard. Paradoxically, however, the individual parts that make up the album feel less focused. There are a few songs that emerge from the experience, but these are surrounded by floating ambient sound experiments, fuzzed-out jams, and spaghetti-western guitar themes.

Although some critics have taken exception to the album’s lack of clear boundaries, my increased interest in instrumental music and soundtracks may have enriched my appreciation of Oczy Mlody. It doesn’t feature the standout melodies of some of their earlier works, but in terms of texture and flow, it’s still quite convincing. At the same time, although it seems that the band is focusing more in being weird than making a clear statement, there does seem to be a coherent narrative that lies beyond the songwriting upon which they built their image.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

When I Was a Baby: Dawes' "All Your Favorite Bands"

In her early years, I had quite a bit of fun shaping P’s musical experiences. Since she has been driving to elementary school with her mother, however, my musical influence has diminished. Its interesting, however, to see how that early musical environment resonates with how she hears music today. I recently had the title track from Dawes’ All Your Favorite Bands playing and when the piano introduction came on she immediately recalled how much she liked the song because she used to listen to it "when she was a baby."

I did not have the heart to tell her that there is no way that it could be true. I got the album at the beginning of this year in my Christmas Booty, so she most likely had never heard the song before January, and almost certainly not in a way that she would remember from her infancy.

Calendrical realities aside, I understand where she is coming from. There is something immediately familiar about the song. In a perfect world, it would be played at every High School graduation. What she did, I think, was catch on to one of the many magical aspects of Dawes. No matter how old or how young you are, they create instant nostalgia in the best possible way. It’s not a crafted, manufactured nostalgia like M83 or Tame Impala employ, but an essential earnestness that they share with many classic song-driven bands. Granted, they don’t really sound like Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, or the Beatles, but they distill their best aspects into a distinctive reinterpretation.

The devoted Dawes fan will notice that I am a little behind the curve by getting into All Your Favorite Bands at the beginning of 2017. Stories Don’t End was my 2014 Album of the Year, and it seems that I should be eager to follow it up, but fear of disappointment made me apprehensive. Dawes consistently stands out, however, by being ingenious wordsmiths. Taylor Goldsmith’s penchant for eloquently addressing the everyday mundane had made him my favorite lyricist, hands down. He often crafts lines that seem like the throwaway meanderings of his stream of consciousness, but their underlying continuity begs the dedicated listener to question the importance of every verse. Check out the subtle Heideggerianisms in Right on Time.

As much as I like to point out Dawes’ lyric strengths, All Your Favorite Bands also contains many outstanding instrumental moments, perhaps in a more noticeable way than its predecessor. In several instances, extended guitar solos and memorable instrumental riffs do more than just service the songs - they expand them. I Can’t Think About it Now, in particular, contains a passionately delivered guitar solo that stands apart from the rest of the song, giving it a sense of departure and return.


Despite being a great album, however, All Your Favorite Bands probably won’t end up as the 2017 album of the year. Aside from having a few other recordings that resonate with me more strongly, there is the sense that some forced moments lurk in the album’s recesses.  This is only an impression, however, and although it will probably be enough to pull it down from that top slot, it has very little impact on the overall album.  The strengths of All Your Favorite Bands far outshine these moments, making the overall experience very rewarding.