Monday, January 21, 2008

Here's a False Problem

Two recent articles on the soundtrack to the film Juno: one in a horrible free magazine "The L" and one in the NY Times .

Sample quotes from "The L":
I've always taken the stance that "indie" is, in fact, an aesthetic sensibility. And what's so striking about Juno is that they straight-up fucking mangled that shit in the film, with all the retardo dialogue, yet they managed to nail it on the soundtrack.

I'm afraid the backlash against things like Juno or the Decembrists is causing people to abandon the ideals we've all grown up with, possibly just for the sake of being contrarians.

and some complaints about "indie, the marketing niche" rather than production or aesthetic.

Let me deal with this one summarily. The distinction between production and aesthetic is a false distinction. There is no "outside" the marketing niche.

Sample quotes from the Times:
At the same time the indie soundtrack has come into its own as a stable, if modest, seller. Directors like Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums") established the type with a mix of new independent music and older rarities, and in 2004 "Garden State" accelerated the trend by highlighting the indie band the Shins. One of their songs, Natalie Portman's character promised in the film, will "change your life, I swear."

"They have the ability to be ironic and sincere at the same time," he said. "You believe the love, the sentiment in everything they're saying, even though they're being crass or they're joking around."

[I myself "seem to choke back" vomit reading this]
Ms. Dawson closed her eyes and squinted as she sang, and although she made her share of wisecracks, she also seemed to choke back tears when pleading with her fans not to abandon her. "Just treat me normal, please," she said. After her last song she announced: "People who have to leave, leave fast. People who don't, get in a circle and hold hands." She walked into the middle of the circle and began to swirl it closely around her: a full-audience group hug.

OK, the point here isn't that "Ms. Dawson" is exceptionally crappy and embarrassing. But really aren't we tired of the image of the artist bewildered by a success they didn't desire? Is anything more warmed-over? I have to give a great deal of credit to Cat Power here (whose songs also appear on the soundtrack, natch), for not giving in to the invitation of fame to publicly-worry-about-fame. "Ms. Dawson," like many of the neurotics to be found on the NY subway, cannot help giving us her every thought in song--her music is a breathless, music-less rush of inanity--and now cannot help but turn her performances into introverted worry-fests. The worst part is that I would very much *like* to say, no one goes to concerts to hear the artists wring their hands in between songs about their personal lives, but.... fans of this music probably do go to shows for that reason. They are on a first name basis (which this blog is NOT) with "Ms. Dawson."

To clarify, briefly, the relation between the two articles--or, to solve the problem of one with the problem of the other:
is there any more palpable demonstration of the false problem of production/aesthetic than seeing this overgrown child crying onstage about how much money she is making?

Indie exists. It is not an aesthetic, however, nor is there a divide between "authentic" indie and some insidious "marketing niche" version. "Indie" IS the new name for the million-seller. Don't stay awake nights worrying about it.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Why didn't I listen to Johnny Rotten?

The other day, I was killing time in St. Mark's Books, and looking for a book on Wagner in the music section. Not finding that, I pulled out a book called The Punk Rock Book of Lists to kill some time waiting for a friend. The book is uninteresting and stupid for a number of reasons I won't go into, but one caught my eye. It was a list Johnny Rotten (nĂ© Lydon) had given in a 1976 radio interview, of his 20 favorite songs, or of 20 songs that had influenced the Sex Pistols, something like that.

Okay, as a list it did not make me rethink my position on Johnny Rotten (a prick) or the Sex Pistols' influences (as the list really had little to do with their sound). But I thought, "My God, this list would be a perfect list of hipster tastes even today!" The list is basically: T. Rex, the Velvet Underground, some Krautrock, some reggae, some other glam, some absolute name-dropping. 

So here are several possible directions I could take, apropos this description so far:
*What did it mean for the early punks to be much more interested in dub and krautrock than in the obvious precursors to their sound? (or to claim to be so)
*How is it that in 30 years, this list has not aged *at all*: someone with this taste today would still be far out front.
*How is it that I did not ever, in the throes of my Sex Pistols fandom, wonder what Johnny Rotten listened to, and then explore that? Instead of listening to Can and Junior Murvin, I took the Sex Pistols and ran towards boring things like MDC and TSOL. 

Obviously the question about myself holds the most interest.  As a huge fan of the Sex Pistols, I naturally got into The Clash, The Damned, the Ramones--and also their immediate predecessors, the Stooges, the MC5. But would I at all have been receptive to being told that Johnny Rotten really listened to reggae and krautrock? And why not?

For me, reggae meant two things to me when I was 15--either Bob Marley or some kind of ska. Both were for losers, Bob Marley's "Legend" being a kind of perennial pothead jam, and ska then enjoying a white revival. Certainly I knew (from the Clash) that early punks were reggae fans, but in my mind, that had to be a mistake. They couldn't be serious. 

More depressingly, my development of taste in music, which I have worked very hard upon, in a way has been contained by what my favorite band (when I was 15) *already knew*. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, a shortcut was available for me the whole time, and I was always more or less ignoring that knowledge while circling around towards it. It's enough to take one down a notch in being self-impressed. 

Of course, not only would I have not understood Krautrock (which I still am not crazy about) when I was 15, but I'm not sure that it would have gotten me anywhere. The young always fall prey to the boring. For instance, I *liked* the Birthday Party always, but I *loved* Sleater-Kinney. With Krautrock, it would have been the same, and if I had followed Johnny Rotten's tastes into Can, I probably would still have come out listening to something boring and more juvenile, like indie rock. Probably it is inevitable that we have bad taste first: that we will reject any help, fall into boring traps, and not even understand our final destination when it appears to us as a shortcut.  So, to the question, "mightn't it have been possible for me to like cool music when I was 15, if only I had followed the advice of my then-favorite band?"--the answer is almost certainly "no." No one can like good music when they are 15.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Darkthrone "F.O.A.D." album review

On one hand, this is the most accomplished guitar-oriented album of 2007, and on the other hand, the gatefold of the LP jacket is a giant photograph of a forest scene obscured by a can of Heineken and someone's knee. No attempt is made to hide that Fenriz is a total douchebag (his thanks list is about 40 times longer than his bandmate's); the album cover is horrible; the album title is worse; the song "Canadian Metal" is unforgivable garbage; it's barely a metal album, even less a black metal album.

The most notable two things about this album, aside from all those appalling negatives, is the painfully-apparent desire to broadcast how into punk the band now is: the single for the album had a Testors cover; they cite Poison Idea, the English Dogs, and Amebix, and Fenriz is wearing a World Burns to Death t-shirt---all this from a band that previously was the most rabidly "orthodox" black metallers! The second thing is that Fenriz, the drummer, now sings on nearly all the songs which he writes (where previously Nocturno Culto, the guitarist, did ALL the vocals).

Everything I've said up to now makes it sound like a completely different band than that which recorded the sparse and ultra-monochrome Under a Funeral Moon.

That is not at all the case, though. This is classic Darkthrone. Or classic Celtic Frost, depending on how well you understand Darkthrone. It's true that Celtic Frost released a "comeback" album this year, titled Monotheist, but the best Celtic Frost album of every year since 1991 has been recorded by the band Darkthrone (or more recently by High On Fire).

Darkthrone were already releasing "hardcore"-style records on the album Hate Them, but it is only recently that this has become full-on crusty gutter sleaze. All the songs written by Fenriz are ludicrous, punked-out "rockers," while the biggest irony is that the most "Darkthrone-sounding" songs are all written by the band member who did NOT write their classic albums. See?

Ok. So. Surface: black metal album by respected and original black metal band Darkthrone. Inside: cheesy slow rock album. Surface: cheesy rock album. Inside: insidious Celtic Frost influence. Surface: Celtic Frost influence taken to ridiculous extreme. Inside: bizarre regression to riffs from their 3rd album. Surface: Return to sounds from their 3rd album. Inside: 3rd album already a rip-off of Celtic Frost. Surface: lifelong debt to Celtic Frost. Inside: This debt split into a schizophrenic songwriting labor that isolates the two ways that the Celtic Frost influence operates on their sound. Surface: songwriting labor split, vocal duties split. Inside: most ridiculous sonic aspect of new album is not this division, but rather the numerous and not-at-all-"metal" guitar solos on every track.

In conclusion, this has to be a concept album about irony and presentation. We might even say it is about what happens when the most "true" black metal band starts spelling it "tr00." But the real joke is on the listeners (the same fools who were left in the dust when Dylan went electric) who did not see this irony as quintessential (no shit) to Panzerfaust or in the band's originary moment, the abandonment of death metal on their second album.

last note: Fenriz's vocals are so unsettlingly bad, until you realize that they are exactly splitting the difference between Tom G. Warrior (Celtic Frost) and Cronos (Venom)--essentially an impersonation. I would love to say that one's appreciation of the album rests on whether one likes "Canadian Metal" or not, but I don't pass that test myself, so...