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Television - Marquee Moon
Marquee Moon is one of the best examples of an album, or any sort of “art” for that matter, that can simultaneously feel so timeless, yet feel so definitive of a very certain and very specific period in history. Of course, that period is mid-to-late 70s New York; more specifically the burgeoning punk rock scene centered around CBGB’s. Except for the people who experienced it first hand, all we have now is overtly romanticized ideas of its past glory. And admittedly, it’s hard not to romanticize it all. Truly classic and groundbreaking music was created out of this period, whatever it was, and it indisputably changed music forever. But hearing the luminaries of this era speak about it, it sometimes seems like talking about what you had for lunch would be more interesting.
You could view this as disappointing and cheap nihilism, but I feel it makes the music even more remarkable. Creating something extraordinary under horribly ordinary circumstances cannot be anything but remarkable. As for Marquee Moon, the usual consensus is (at least nowadays) that it’s a classic album. But if you think about it, it’s still a curious choice as the classic album of 1970s New York punk. Tellingly, no other band of the time (with the possible exception of Talking Heads) has been under such scrutiny in terms of ”punk or not?”. Even the Talking Heads have a bona fide punk classic in “Psycho Killer”, but it’s a bit harder to imagine a Television song making it onto a boring, budget-priced ”PUNK! NEW WAVE!” compilation found at Best Buy.
The reason for this isn’t exactly a mystery either. Television, with their diamond-hard and crystal-clear guitars have always been overshadowed by the buzzsaw-pop of The Ramones. And indeed, The Ramones are much more immediate and easier to “get”, which explains a lot of it, but at least The Ramones’ influence gets the attention it deserves. Television…not so much. The reason being, it’s simply harder to gauge exactly how influential they were/are, but it’s painfully obvious. Television almost single-handedly proved that punk rock and virtuosity were not the polar opposites of each other. Punk could be cerebral; you could make artistic and inspired music without bloated and pointless excess. Television’s extremely tight, complex, clean, interlocking, poetry-laced, and alternately ice-cold/soothingly-warm sound ended up being much more important to post-punk. Television accomplished a hilarious and rare feat: being possibly the first proto-post-punk band.
Another interesting aspect of Marquee Moon is how much it evokes pre-punk music. Despite being the scene’s most innovative group at the time, Television’s music is loaded with obvious influences from 1960s psychedelic-acid-art rock bands; some tracks are just straight-up rock songs. Soul music is something that I personally hear all over the album, with the famous call-and-response on “Venus” (Venus honestly deserves its own essay), and most obviously on the flawless track, “Guiding Light”. Tom Verlaine’s nervous, wavering (although very rhythmic and powerful) vocals invert the very idea of “soul”, but he’s not detached and he’s not passionless. The music is not psychedelic, but you can still space out to it in the same way. The music is not the generally accepted idea of “soul” music, but it’s as fiery-passionate as anything.
The music itself, which isn’t all beautiful, quicksilver, melodic and inventive playing, (there are some pretty harsh sounds on this record), combined with Verlaine’s voice, has an almost indescribable anxious, panic-stricken, desperate, sick feeling. It’s almost as if The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting For The Man” have been stretched out for 45 minutes, but he’s not searching for drugs, he’s not searching for anything in particular, and is almost comfortable with or least accepting of it, and that’s the sick part. Just sick of dirty, neon city life. But, in all honesty, what else could be better?
So it may not actually be a “1977 New York punk rock” album, and although it doesn’t need to, I doubt it will ever be truly accepted as such. But, it couldn’t have been created under any different circumstances, or at least not in the same way. And thank goodness it wasn’t.
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Daniel Johnston - Yip/Jump Music
Daniel Johnston is quite a controversial figure in the world of underground music. Although numerous luminaries have praised and paid tribute to his work, some have derided it, or at the very least claimed the ”crazy” Johnston to be unworthy of the “genius” tag that has often been uttered in the same breath as his name. Admittedly, the large body of work created by Daniel Johnston is difficult to grasp at times, but the best of his work, which I contend is Yip/Jump Music, makes the “genius” tag seem not so ridiculous.
The biggest problem I have with a lot of the derision Daniel Johnston receives is the assumption that his music is basically just the work of a childish, crazed psychopath banging out a cacophony of noise, which is praised as being genius by artsy-fartsy types who “just like it because it’s weird.” You know, criticisms that are not unique at all. Daniel Johnston, sadly, has indeed not always made the best choices due to his mental illnesses, but his music (especially his early work before his mental health took an unfortunate decline) does not really fit in with the “Outsider Music” genre he is often lumped in with. Certainly, the theme of being an outsider plays an important role in Daniel Johnston’s music and entire persona, but there isn’t really anything especially “odd” about how his music is structured or played. Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges (your music would be too if it were recorded straight to a cheap cassette), perhaps naively performed, and perhaps obviously played by an interesting character or whatever, but Daniel Johnston knows how to write a pop song.
The songs are full of classic Johnston contradictions. The music is bright, sunny, and melodic. The percussive nature of his chord-organ playing drives the upbeat sounding-tracks forward, and his singing is sincere and passionate. However, slower songs allow the chord-organ to permeate a gloomy funeral-home vibe, and the use of an extremely out of tune guitar on the “Sorry Entertainer” is a charmingly crazed mechanical-pop tune. Johnston falls perfectly into the singer/songwriter/storyteller category. And of course, despite being full of what I consider fantastic and melodic pop songs, the somewhat crude and almost eerie sound of Yip/Jump Music will certainly make a few people think, “What the fuck is this? You like this?” But the album isn’t supposed to earn you friends or cement your faith in humanity, it’s supposed to comfort you in your lack of it (which may have something to do with Johnston’s “spirituality”). It’s not party music, it’s personal music.
Yip/Jump Music succeeds because it invokes a simultaneous feeling of being the uncomfortable observer/uncomfortable participant. Sometimes, you’re keen to be an admiring witness to Daniel’s art, the whole art-gallery-“This is interesting"-aspect of it. Other times, you feel as though you’re right in the same boat; the struggles with love, sadness, loneliness, and the pervading Why am I here? question. Anyone that has sat in their room all day, pining over a lost love, and clanking some noise out of an instrument will find something in this album. But Yip/ Jump Music doesn’t wallow in its own despair, it’s strangely comfortable in it. It goes back to the basically true idea that the greatest creative works come from places of pain; the tortured artist. I’m sure Daniel Johnston recognizes this, and he uses it to his best advantage. This may sound like a suspect reason to do things, but if you consider Daniel was recording these songs on cheap cassettes alone in his parents’ basement, and that most of the music itself had almost no commercial appeal, it can hardly be argued as impure. Whether Daniel himself was just making music his own way without compromise and mass appeal in mind (like peers Half Japanese), or if he genuinely thought that he would eventually be as big as The Beatles (strangely, also like Half Japanese?) is unknown. But questions like that are part of what makes the music so interesting in the first place.
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The Depreciation Guild - Spirit Youth
Shoegaze, like so many other genres pioneered over two decades ago, has seen a somewhat uncomfortable revival in recent years. If you’re an optimist, you’ve welcomed the flood of shoegaze-styled groups. If you’re a pessimist, you’ve hated the revival of a genre that reached its peak when a lot of its modern practitioners were still in diapers. And if you’re a realist (like me), you acknowledge the fact that most of it will certainly be monotonous and just plain bad, but some of it may well be great.
The recent revivals have been full of some crap music and some harsh criticism, with creators of the latter pointing to the lack of creativity or music on the level of those “Golden Years”. To be fair, shoegaze especially isn’t exactly a genre where originality and virtuosity are the main focus. Even now, shoegaze bands can certainly create convincing and passionate music, but with a style of music so rigidly defined and perfected already, it’s hard not to say, “This just sounds like a cheap and insincere My Bloody Valentine (Or Jesus and Mary Chain or Slowdive) imitation.” That’s obviously a poor attitude to have, but it resonates some truth.
The more clever bands have mixed shoegaze with other influences, and with varying degrees of success. The Depreciation Guild (lead by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s drummer Kurt Feldman) certainly developed an interesting take in their 5 years together, mixed with equal parts dream pop, a heavy dose of 80s darkwave/synthpop, and most surprisingly, the Famicom (or Super Nintendo) crunch to create a dramatic and dreamy swirl of reverb-heavy guitars and 8-bit washes endlessly described as “blip blops”. On The Depreciation Guild’s first LP, In Her Gentle Jaws, the chiptune video game sound had an exceedingly more prominent role, and was more of an exercise in melding Cocteau Twins-guitar with the nostalgia-inducing Famicom sound chip. Predictably, despite being a good album, the use of what some would consider “cheesy” Super NES melodies and drums clashed with the dramatic sound and tone of the guitars and lyrics, and was perhaps, understandably, thought of as gimmicky. TDG, to their credit, recognized this and sought out to make an album that proved their use of the Famicom was just as another instrument, and not a novelty item.
The chiptune sound on Spirit Youth has a less prominent, but much more refined role. The bright scatters of digital chirping flow with the tracks rather than sticking out at you, and this coupled with the use of real drums and bass give Spirit Youth a much more dynamic and serious “band” sound. Overall, The Depreciation Guild have always been on the dreamier and softer side of the shoegazer coin, as there is basically no feedback or discordant guitar tones. The lack of emphasis on harsher textures may be enough to not even consider this a shoegaze album at all, but the comparatively abrasive and driving tracks “Crucify You” and “Through The Snow” provide among the most thrilling moments on the album.
Which I feel is the only real negative thing I can say about this record. There is a distinct lack of abrasiveness. The melodramatic vocals and synths sometimes call to mind the more saccharine and overtly “romantic” qualities of J-Pop and 80s synthpop, which can be a bit distasteful at times. Spirit Youth is also confusing in that I can’t decide whether it’s a POP! (as in the independent punk-ethos pop) or pop (as in “I want to be in the Top 40”) album. Despite that, and if you can get over the tooth-rotting sweetness, Spirit Youth is a pretty great album. The songwriting is strong and intricate, and the melodies are memorable. At the very least, these guys truly meant what they were doing, and it’s a shame they couldn’t have done more.
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suburbanlovers asked: Your Vampire Weekend review brings up really great points. As much as people like to believe they love music, it's often image and certain connotations about a band that dictates what people enjoy, and thus can hinder music-consumers from really enjoying what they really might enjoy (this also goes for loving music 'ironically'). Your reviews are really good. Hope you plan to write more.
Precisely. Thanks very much.
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Vampire Weekend - Contra
XL Recordings, 2010
*This is more of an essay than a music review*
You know, I was thinking about it, and if I may get straight to the point, I think Vampire Weekend may be this generation’s Talking Heads. Now before you get angry about this sentence, I merely think they’re similar in execution (I am not saying that Vampire Weekend is as good as Talking Heads, or vice-versa).
Both come out of music scenes where they didn’t quite fit in (Talking Heads from 1970s CBGB’s New York punk rock, Vampire Weekend from the modern “ultra-hot” Brooklyn indie rock scene). But as it’s been said before, their places in their respective scenes were structural, rather than cultural. Just as the Talking Heads didn’t seem to care about being the “punkest”, Vampire Weekend seem to care little about indie cred. They were both simply too odd to thrive anywhere else.
Unfortunately as well, both are mainly known, at least by general recollection, for a quirky hit single and music video (Once In A Lifetime, A-Punk) that isn’t entirely representative of their overall sound. And both bands are “White, college-educated, upper-middle class looking” who incorporate a massive amount of influence from African music. This last similarity has been a real source of problems for Vampire Weekend, but never for the Talking Heads. And if the Talking Heads did experience a slight backlash for their use of African sounds, it was nothing compared to the backlash Vampire Weekend have faced.
Why is it this way? Well, the answer is quite obvious. Any sort of self-respecting “indie” music fan knows about Vampire Weekend, and certainly has an opinion on them. More often than not, that opinion is not a very positive one. And admittedly, it’s quite easy to hate Vampire Weekend. Every. Single. Mention of them. ANYWHERE, makes note of their college backgrounds, their upper middle-class preppy look, and their use of African-pop sounds. These things are the primary source for criticism of the band. I mean, who really wants to listen to white, upper class Ivy League imperialist snobs playing stolen African music right? But as everyone knows, or should know, looks can be deceiving. Such criticism has proven once again that indie rock fans aren’t as open-minded and welcoming as they’d like to think.
Suburban kids really love to show how “gritty” they truly are, and what’s a better way to show that than liking bands, who even though may have come from even wealthier backgrounds than Vampire Weekend, don’t “look it” or “sound like it”? It’s really come down to (mainly) “white, college-educated” music critics and fans who haven’t really had a hard life (from a reasonable standpoint) decrying “white, college-educated” musicians who haven’t really had a hard life either (but they actually admit it). For the average, young, and sane (as in down-to-earth) American (or anyone in the “First World”), there is always going to be someone that has it better than you and someone that has it worse than you. So while it’s easy for you and myself to attack others, it’s just as easy for you and myself to be attacked in these terms.
This is why I have respect for Vampire Weekend. I can’t defend everything they’ve ever done, but they aren’t faking or trying to play down their backgrounds; if anything VW is just trying to tell the truth. Vampire Weekend often have to reiterate that they aren’t the spoiled rich kids people make them out to be, but they aren’t trying to make themselves seem like tough working- class stiffs either. This conflict is often discussed in their lyrics, and is sometimes taken the wrong way. They definitely aren’t a completely satiric band covertly taking down rich people by becoming them, but examining and exploring the turmoil of class (not wanting to be elitist and rich, but not wanting to be dirt poor) that nearly everyone can relate to. This is kind of a heavy notion; certainly heavier than anything you’d think Vampire Weekend lyrics would be about, but this itself demonstrates my thoughts perfectly. Perhaps because of their sugary, poppy sound, this would automatically deter many from thinking they had any real substance. And despite this massive backlash that has really brought up terms of class and music and sincerity and culture-robbing, Vampire Weekend are not a serious political band, they simply want to write some good pop songs.
And they do it. Really, really well. The songs on Contra are really some of the best and most original pop tunes I’ve heard in a long time. The over-mentioned use of African music hasn’t been done away with this time to save face or anything, it’s just been blended in better. The use of programmed drums and synthesizers created really bright flourishes of color, but it seems quite organic and natural at the same time. The production is virtually flawless, the instrumentation vibrant, jumpy, and often surprisingly moving. It can be a bit much at times though, and certain people may find everything a bit stomach-churning. But Contra is a classic example of an album that grows on you. This isn’t music where you immediately think, “This is brilliant”, it’s more of a realization that you actually do like it. And for some reason, Contra is a little underwhelming. Not in the way of music, but it does seem like it’s over far too quickly. I can’t quite put my finger on it.
The best thing about Vampire Weekend is that although they obviously have numerous influences (indie pop, various types of African music, calypso, reggae, ska, Britpop, classical, synthpop, and dare I say even punk rock), they mix these influences together perfectly. And even better yet, they sound completely original and with hardly any starting points. So even though you’re hearing all these familiar sounds, the end result is something I find very original and almost startling. You definitely can’t say that about many bands these days, no matter how “good” they are.
I would suggest that people at least give them a chance. And if you still think their music sucks, at least it’s the music itself and not really what you think about the people making it. Obviously though, who a band are as people (and they don’t strike me as bad people) makes a great difference in how one can feel about their music, but I simply think the criticism, or at least amount of criticism, Vampire Weekend gets is a little unfair. I never imagined I would like or defend this band, which is still in the “guilty-pleasure” category, but I can’t resist a just plain good pop song. Who can really? Despite how painful it is to change and admit appreciation for a band you used to loathe, it’s comforting in a way. It’s proves you’re human. And I think I just hated Vampire Weekend fans more than the band, but that’s how it always is, isn’t it?
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poetessinthepit asked: I honestly despise most music reviews I read, but I love your reviews. Most music reviews are either peppered with flowery cliched phrases that don't really mean anything or are really cold and boring. Your reviews are perfect. They describe the music pretty accurately, are humorous and you can tell that the person writing them really has a love for good music.
You are ridiculously sweet.
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Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth
Rough Trade, 1980
Colossal Youth is still an album unlike any I’ve ever heard before or since, but that’s not to say I can’t find its massive influence on modern music. A sweet, faint voice singing softly over quirky and minimal electronic pop can be found in plenty of modern bands (and I swear I’ve heard it in commercials). Whether or not this can be traced back to the Young Marble Giants alone is debatable, but YMG certainly did it the best.
And certainly many people may just see it as that: quirky, minimal, electronic pop music. Many people tend to focus simply on the peculiarities of Colossal Youth. It’s only obvious that these qualities would jump out at you (perhaps “jump out” is the wrong phrase in this case), but despite all of its charm, this doesn’t strike me as the focus of the album. After a few listens, the silly synth and drum sounds don’t seem quite so silly anymore, they sound like they need to be there.
Despite being such a charmingly odd album, Colossal Youth is incredibly dark. I don’t mean dark in the sense of being violent (such as The Birthday Party) or morose (such as The Chameleons, for sake of reference), but dark as in how the music actually comes across visually. You get the sense of being in a big, empty, dark room. I would say that Colossal Youth even rivals Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures in terms of intense sparseness. The atmosphere Colossal Youth exudes is an almost palpable blackness. Alison Statton’s vocals occupy the strange space between haunting and comforting, sort of like slowly walking through the pitch-black in the middle of the night with your hands stretched out, until you finally find your bed.
This is the only album YMG made, and despite sometimes wishing there were more, this is as perfect a statement a band can make. It also goes to show what can achieved with what little you have. The Young Marble Giants are one of those bands that are incredibly inspiring and frustrating at the same time. Inspiring because maybe you too can make touching, lovely music without being the best musician or having the best equipment, but frustrating because you just don’t know how they did it.
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poetessinthepit asked: You Killed A Boy For Me? I love the Henry's Dress reference. I love the reviews. I think I might love you if I was to judge you by your music tastes alone.
Thank you very much. I’ll definitely try to write another review this week.
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imjustbunburying asked: Your music reviews are really great, you are a talented writer with just the right amount of wit.
Thank you so much. Maybe I should actually write more then.
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The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - Belong
Strange. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart have always been a strange band to me. Although at first glance (or listen, rather) they are just a part of the big modern noise-pop craze (or fad). You’ve seen it, I’m sure. Pretty people making guitar pop with a bit of fuzz thrown over everything. Not surprisingly, most of it has been pretty boring. I’m not saying it doesn’t sound good a few times, but it certainly doesn’t grab you. It’s just become tedious.
So you may be wondering, are The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart really that different? Well, let’s see: Noisy guitars? Check. Simple songs with only a few basic chords? Check. Good reviews by all the hip music magazines? Check. Adored by teenage assholes? Check, I guess. So what’s the big deal? What makes the Pains any better?
They’re pure at heart. Clever, huh? Well it’s true. What sets them apart is their sincerity. I’m not saying other bands don’t mean it; I guess you can be passionate about smoking weed and being a spoiled brat, but the Pains write about things that nearly everyone can relate to. It doesn’t only show in their music, it shows in their interviews. Personally, relatability is key when listening to a modern band. A modern band represents you. They grow with you. They are supposed to be like you. If you wouldn’t want to hang out with the people writing the songs, why would you want to listen to them?
But enough. This is all just pop music anyway. After their first album, the minor-masterpiece The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, the Pains deliver Belong. What hits you immediately is that the Pains are louder. Maybe louder isn’t the most appropriate word. Bombastic is probably more fitting. The self-titled was more than capable of hurting your ears, but Belong sounds more filled-out; more like a standard rock band. Depending on your point of view, that really isn’t bad thing. That being said, if you have fallen in love with the sunny-chainsaw pop delivered by the first album, this may take a few listens to get into.
It’s the classic case of nostalgia versus progression. You want a band to excite you and not grow stagnant, yet you want them to keep the qualities that hooked you in the first place. I think it’s safe to say that the Pains have reached a balance between the two…if you’re willing to give it a chance. This is still an album of great, simple pop songs, but now you have a band who seems like a confident group of musicians. When lead singer Kip Berman is belting out the songs, he seems sure of himself as a vocalist. The band as a whole steps out of their comfort-zone more than a few times, especially on the New Order-ish ”The Body” (which is probably my favorite track off the album). The Pains still bring the noise (no pun intended) on tracks like “Girl Of 1000 Dreams”, which sounds like a hold-over from the first record. Belong shows the Pains at their dreamiest as well, with tracks like “Anne With An E” and the closer, “Strange”. No, it isn’t just pop music.
As a whole, I don’t feel this album packs the punch the first album did. But when you’ve made an album of ten flawless noisy-pop songs, where do you go from there? You have to at least try, and that’s what Kip and company did, with a better than decent result. If at first The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart deserved respect, now they demand it.
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