Friday, March 29, 2013

All That Came With this Album is Music, and I'm Pissed.

I have told this story more than twice, but at last year's SXSW shitstorm, I found myself sitting at a picnic table with two different bands, fielding their questions about what they could do better, as bands, to make music editors (of which I was one at the time) pay attention to the albums they sent us, rather than doing what we all normally do, which is put them in a pile and never look at them again. As a journalist, and an honest person, I gave it to them straight by saying "you gotta put some stickers in your shit. Or include a piece of candy."

After telling these bands this, they of course looked at me like I said we only open envelopes that have been sealed with wet farts, but what I told them is true. As a consumer of shit, and as an adult baby cavewoman shut-in, all I care about is STUFF. Yes, I love music. But as more and more of it becomes easily accessible and beyond over-saturated, the first thing I think upon opening a newly purchased album, CD, or mail-order package is "what else?" Opening music packaging now is like opening up that pastel colored greeting card sent by your grandma and shaking it in hopes that a crisp $20 will come floating out. "This is it? What else?" The road that has led us here is clear. Look ...

When I first started collecting music, it looked like that up there. I'd make my mom drive me to Blockbuster Music, or later on, drive my shitty Mitsubishi Mirage to Mad Platter in Riverside, CA. and buy whatever I wanted, and whatever I wanted came on cassette, because that's all that was available. Unless you had a record player, which I didn't. Tapes were usually $10-$14 and came in a hard case that would be chipped and broken before you even got it home. Tapes were very durable, unless left in direct sunlight. Sometimes the innards of tapes would get "weird" and the only way I knew how to fix this was to crack the tape like you would a stiff neck, and somehow this would fix whatever was wrong with it.

After awhile tapes started looking like this, because why not? At some point, somewhere, a man in a suit in an office said "sales are down, and I have an idea for how to pick them up. You ready for this? Let's make them different colors!" And it worked, because everyone in this world, including me, especially you, is stupid.

Up until like a handful of years ago, you were considered a poor nerd if you didn't have a home stereo. The MAIN thing that made people cool when I first started getting into music, especially before my group of friends all had cars, was what sort of stereo set-up you had. Stereos, and having them, stayed important until they all of a sudden weren't. I still have a stereo, and I still own a coffee pot. I have had my face laughed into for both of these things and I really don't understand what's so funny about it. Don't you want to listen to music, out loud, NOT through shitty computer speakers, and maybe drink coffee that no one can fuck up but you, all at the same time? I guess maybe I don't understand how you are trying to live your life.

The first CD I ever got, EVER, was the Pulp Fiction Soundtrack. The CD was a gift from my parents for Christmas, the same Christmas in which I was given my first CD player. At that time (1990?) CDs came in "longboxes"like the ones pictured above. To go into a music store at that time and buy more than four CDs, you'd basically need a small wagon to carry them around because they each weighed about as much as a shoe box filled with shoes.

CDs usually look something like this now. Bands and artists seem to enjoy putting a great deal of creative effort, and time, into making original drawings and hand-made packaging so that we can look at it, get it all dirty with our butt crumb fingers, and then throw it away. I will always try really hard to figure out a good storage system for things like this. I will spend at least a day thinking about it, before I throw it away.

Because no one really has new ideas anymore, or if they do, don't really care to share them because "everyone sucks," things tend to get recycled. Albums have been around forever, and some people have just always had them, but now it seems like a lot more people are getting in to them because the chances of more "cool shit" being included with the purchase of an album are greater than the purchase of say a CD or MP3. This is what albums used to look like. Some still look like this I suppose:

This is the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas Soundtrack and I bought it used on Amazon for about $11. There's a really great picture of Dolly Parton's boobs on the back of it, and the whole thing smells like old paper. I've been trying really hard to figure out how to make my whole apartment smell like old paper. I'm almost there.

Most records look like this now. When I get an album, I unwrap it and ease it out of its packaging so slowly, like Charlie with his chocolate bar - hoping to see a golden ticket inside. Even if I know that what's inside is colored vinyl, because that's what it says on the sticker, and that's why I bought it, upon first glimpse of it I'll go "ohhhhhhhhhh." And if I get sent something and it's NOT colored vinyl, it's like a really cheap rip-off, even though I'm still getting exactly the collection of songs I paid for. See how stupid people are? Do you see?

Same goes for 45s. Sometimes I take this Brass Bed 45 out of its sleeve and just hold it up to the sun and look at it for at least five minutes, and then put it back in its sleeve. If it wasn't pretty like this, I'd just play it.

At my previous job I worked with this water head who had never heard of flexi-discs. I got one as a promo in the mail and tried to be like "hey look, water head, I got this cool flexi-disc in the mail, let me share this with you," but he wasn't having it because I have a vagina, and vaginas can't have cool things, or have ideas about stuff. But then, like a week later, I heard him man-splanning flexi-discs to an intern. Such is the way of the water head. These are a thing now too. Flexi-discs, not water heads. The first flexi I ever got came with an issue of Sassy Magazine. I wish I still had it.

This is a thing now too, re-issuing albums that are already out, but with new artwork, and acting like it's a thing. This Drive Soundtrack put out by Mondo IS super cool though. It's got at least four pictures of Ryan Gosling right on it.

So that's it. Just a brief walk through how music packaging has changed in an effort to make us want to touch it. It's like dating, huh? Do you think that maybe one day bands will just start OkCupid profiles to try and snatch us up? Why don't we all just have sex and be done with it? Cut to the chase already. I said "cut to the chase" to a teller at the post office yesterday and he got SO MAD.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Read a Book, Listen to a Record, Watch a Game

Sometimes when I’m home alone I like to lie down on the couch, pick up a book, put on a record, and turn on a game, and see who wins the all out war for my attention. Here’s what happened last time: 

“A Tan And Sandy Silence” by John D. MacDonald

“A Tan And Sandy Silence” is the 13th of 21 paperbacks written by MacDonald featuring the Travis McGee character. I decided to read all of them and am rather mirthlessly following through on that promise to myself. I might just be in the middle of a bad run for MacDonald. Tough to say.

Travis McGee is a “salvage consultant,” which means anti con-man and unlicensed detective, and he lives on a house boat in Fort Lauderdale. His gig is he formulaically pursues a series of deranged grifters, fucks an array of unrealistically reasonable-seeming women who may or may not die on him, nearly dies himself once a book, works himself into a state of superhuman physical readiness which he uses to incapacitate at least one hapless goon, drinks gin, eats steaks, frets through a series of obsolete 20th century moral quandaries, and whines about civilization’s many encroachments into his delicate sense of personal freedom.

I’ve been reading them because they’re tidily paced and take place in warm climates and are cartoonishly masculine. All of which qualities serve as a welcome escape from my long, slow, monotonous life in cold, dreary Chicago, where I am currently tiptoeing ballslessly through the aftermath of breakdown-induced sobriety.

This one is okay. The last one, “The Long Lavender Look” was a gleeful return to form after “Dress Her In Indigo,” which was the most nihilistic, disjointed, and preachy McGee I’ve so far put myself through. I worry about the now dead MacDonald’s state of mind as his paperback hero rounds out the 60’s and heads into the Watergate era. There’s a decent chance these will veer into intolerable territory. He hasn’t even pontificated about Vietnam yet. I know it’s coming. I don’t want that. I want a tall, scarred blond guy to drive boats around in the sun and beat the shit out of some bad guys while saying pithy little things and having an impossibly understanding girlfriend cook him a side of beef. You know, escapism.

Right now McGee is interrogating a lady con artist who’s been impersonating a dead friend of his. This is not a plot giveaway if you’ve ever read on of these books. McGee is laying it on thick, acting pretty sadistically. But it’s okay, these are bad guys. He gets like this every once in a while with the bad guys.

Brainbombs “Obey”

“Obey” is the third album by Swedish noise rock band Brainbombs, recently reissued in limited quantities on the Armageddon Shop label. It is brutal and horrific and tastelessly excessive and great, provided you can take graphic descriptions of murder, rape, child abuse, and/or mutilation with a grain of salt.

The rule of thumb with this band has been one riff per song, repeated into a pounding monotony that causes a nearly transcendent amount of tension. I wouldn’t call it psychedelic, but listening to the Brainbombs makes you different, and you see the world differently for a little while after being spit out on the other side. It’s not entirely pleasant, but it can be somewhat refreshing if you let it wash over you instead of investigating it too closely.

Only a couple of elements here prevent this album from being too awful for me to handle. One is the goofiness of vocalist Peter RÃ¥berg’s Swedish accent. It puts the arrhythmically grunted torture porn lyrics just far enough over the top for them to seem more silly than threatening. You know, like Black Metal, except listenable. Also the band’s recordings benefit from a lo-fi, low stress, imprecise production that allows you to take a step back and assume they’re not taking this too seriously. A well-produced, lushly arranged, finely detailed and compressed and multitracked and overdubbed and digitally mastered for optimal fidelity Brainbombs album would be truly frightening, given the content.

As is, it’s just some weird Swedish guys with borderline unforgivably dark senses of humor. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. I’d probably indulge in a few yuks about ritualistic torture if I lived that close to the arctic circle, just to keep myself from snapping completely. From a wryly comedic perspective, Obey dovetails pretty well with McGee’s melodramatically forlorn musings about how living by a code is what makes a man a man.

Maryland vs. Alabama in the Quarterfinals of the Men’s NIT Basketball Tournament

The sludgy, doleful repetition of the Brainbombs one-riff-per-song maxim, especially combined with the violent lyrics of “Die You Fuck,” merged well enough with the NIT for me to put down McGee and watch a few minutes of play.

There are two clear best Maryland players. One is small forward Dez Wells, a late transfer from Xavier who was expelled from that Catholic institution in the wake of sexual assault allegations which failed to motivate a grand jury toward an indictment. The rose-colored glasses version of the guy’s private business I tell myself in order to endure my own moral quandaries about rooting for this team is he was the victim of post-Sandusky overzealousness, but he probably did something extremely impolite at the very least. Student sections at opposing schools like to chant “No Means No” at him when he shoots free throws. It pisses him off.

The other top Maryland player is Alex Len, a 7’1” Ukrainian sophomore who’ll probably go top 5 in the upcoming NBA Draft. He has that signature blend of grimness and goofiness that’s unique to denizens of the former Eastern Bloc, who always look to me like they’re moments away from either beheading somebody or gleefully dancing to accordion music. Len displays nimble footwork and moves fluently for a person his size, and he disappears for long stretches of the game and season while Maryland’s shitty ball handlers fail to deliver him the ball. He is doomed to set picks and then roll, ignored by his teammates, into oblivion.

The only other Maryland player of note is Freshman Jake Layman, a tall white Massachusetts native with range in the Laettner mold, who if Maryland had stayed n the ACC would likely have developed into one of those college guys you absolutely hate for no reason. Instead he’ll spend the next year in the Big Ten, where everybody will just be glad he doesn’t play for Nebraska or Purdue or, God help us, Wisconsin, where the platitudes-per-melanin ratio would be off the charts unbearable. Upon Layman’s sinking a three pointer over a shorter defender, every announcer seems to agree he will be a better player later, as if they are looking forward to annoying everybody.

Alabama features the short and fat but strangely nimble Trevor Releford, little brother of one of the guys who plays for Kansas. He’s the sort of player that gets to the hoop with regularity either despite or because of the fact that he seems like he shouldn’t be able to. He’s like a chubby Chris Duhon.

The game is choppy and dispirited, and Brainbombs are providing the lone source of tension, but it matches well. The brutal samishness of the guitar onslaught becomes one with Alabama’s lazy perimeter passing against the Maryland zone defense, and the halting Swedish-tinged lyrical descriptions of psychosexual mayhem merge in unison with a succession of not particularly urgent Alex Len dunks, Releford drives, and shitty Maryland ball handler turnovers.

I feel about the same way about reading the McGee novels at this point as Maryland probably feels about winning games in the NIT. This is like something I love, and it’s still pretty good, but I’m only doing it because I’m here and I might as well and if I finish the task at hand I’ll feel good. If it bothers me all that much, I guess I can put on some Brainbombs and be glad this is the worst dilemma I’m facing.

Don't Do It, Reggie Evans

Here's a video of Brooklyn Nets forward Reggie Evans doing some kind of awkward pre-pick finger exploration of the outside of his nose:

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Thee Oh Sees "Floating Coffin" (2013, Castle Face)

Thee Oh Sees have been the best band in America for so long it must be boring to them. It’s damn near getting boring for me. Floating Coffin is reliably excellent. It’s not perfect. It doesn’t have a fuuuuck yessssss moment on it. It’s the current newest record by the best band in America. The one with the strawberries and eyeballs and teeth on it. I don’t, and I’m guessing most people with an interest in it also won’t, have any idea what to do with it, other than to file it away in my ever-largening “O” section, and break it out again for the next time I play a game of rank the Oh Sees albums. Floating Coffin is battling for a fifth place that as a first place would be the envy of many, many lesser bands. 

The good news is after they went full pop-experimentalist with Putrifiers II last year and still didn’t become the gigantic cultural force we’ve always expected them to maybe become, the whole will-they won’t-they tension eased a bit. We already knew who Thee Oh Sees were, but last year who Thee Oh Sees are going to be snapped into focus. They will go down in history as a medium-sized cultural force with many devoted adherents, a few naysaying backlashers, and many more who shrug and walk away. Their cult will grow and intensify, and many will discover an impulse to claim an earlier than is strictly true membership in it, as if such meaningless distinctions as “since OCS” might buy a cup of coffee’s worth of social capital. This tendency to gravitate towards brainless worship on the part of the “hardcore” constituency will be annoying enough to keep the mildly curious at arm’s length, through no fault of their own. 

So it’s won’t-they be the biggest, and will-they be the best. Which is great. We can all put the binoculars down and enjoy. Now the only remaining question about the Oh Sees as a creative entity is the shape of their denouement. Will they split up and pursue intertwining “solo” careers wherein Brigid Dawson haunts us forever with a Marble Index (the limited-edition flexi of “There Is A Balm In Gilead” hints at the plausibility of this) and John Dwyer pulls a Transformer out of his ass and becomes royalty and lapses into a languid state of non-production punctuated by a series of insane-seeming instant guaranteed failures, such as collaborating with Missy Elliot on a country album? Will Dwyer finally form the neo-garage Travelling Wilburys with Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin and Kyle “King Tuff” Thomas? Will there be drama and hurt feelings and success panic and drug abuse and bizarre Axl Rose rock and roll attitude problems? Will the Oh Sees stick together and just keep on releasing new records into prolific infinity like the similarly cultish Guided By Voices, with maybe an occasional five year break in there from which they will return invigorated and purposeful? 

Our dear Oh Sees are a likely candidate for the GBV option. The production models, aesthetic, and reception of the two entities all match pretty evenly up to this point. From now on we can greet new Thee Oh Sees releases with this is their this and this is their that album comparisons (this is their Earthquake Glue), and debate returns to form and departure points, and generally drop their name to make any strained, cred-grabbing metaphors in our lazy critical rhetoric, and it will work, like a tired old dog compulsively chasing a tennis ball. You know, like Guided By Voices. Just like Guided By Voices. A band I know about. Thee Oh Sees. Guided By Voices. And the same thing will happen to the fanbase: more and more people hopping off the bandwagon every year to buy houses and start families and stop giving a shit about anything dumb like this. The remaining bandwagon denizens will by percentage grow more intensely devoted and twitchy, loner cultural tourists showing up to the record store when there’s a new Oh Sees album and bugging the clerks with pseudo-academic analysis small talk about it while the eyerolling clerks are on the next thing which is the same thing but newer and less known. 

I see my own fate in there. My own Floating Coffin, drawing me inexorably forward like an otherworldly monolith. Maybe that's the version of death they're talking about this time. It's always hard to tell.