Beatbots Webzine Beatbots Webzine en-us Features : An Open Letter to the Baltimore Music and Arts Underground by Tim Kabara, 21 Dec 2012 07:13:15 -0500
On September 3rd, 2012, America celebrated the Labor Day holiday. Th]]>

Dear Baltimore Music and Arts Underground,

On September 3rd, 2012, America celebrated the Labor Day holiday. The weather in Baltimore was gloomy, muggy, and oppressive. In the afternoon there were tropical downpours, perhaps remnants of Hurricane Issac. I spent the day working on two written pieces, a review of Horse Lords’ new album and a radio piece about Dan Deacon. Outside of a video game break, the work essentially consumed my last day of summer.

I knew that this was the last day in more ways than one. I had resolved that this was my last push forward on the creative/journalistic work that has consumed my free time for most of the past four years. Although I have done this sort of work in the past, I think things really get going on January 5th, 2009, when I published my first album review on this website.

The work I did here lead to me getting noticed by a producer at WYPR. The producer first tried to get a hold of me in the fall of 2009, but it was year later before I was interviewed on air. On November 17th, 2010, a piece I had worked on appeared on the radio for the first time.

In the “old media” narrative, I would be using these appearances as resume-builders and stepping stones to the career I had envisioned for myself as a 1990s teenager. Back then, I assumed my sensibilities were a bit too underground for Rolling Stone, but maybe I could work for Spin?

In any case, what used to be an industry is now a smoking crater. To be honest, in 2008, I was a bit jazzed by the chaos I was walking into. Anyone with a URL can do this work! I will do it for free! I will do it for fun! I will use this platform to advocate for local music and art that I think is worthy of time and attention.

And I did. I got to have my say, which is to me the most interesting aspect of this new interworld, and I got to be relentlessly positive in a local media field historically dominated by snarky negativity.

But, for me, it is time to stop. Not forever, but for a while. I think people have caught on to all the excellent stuff happening here in Baltimore, and I have other creative matters to attend to while other talented writers continue to advocate on the scene's behalf.

Thanks to all the people who have allowed me this window of opportunity. Thanks to all the artists who were willing to talk to me and work with me. Thanks to the wonderful and amazing people I have spent time with over the past 20 years of involvement in the Baltimore music and arts underground. And, especially, thanks to the Beatbots Collective for accepting me as a member. This is where I got my start.

It is the morning of December 21st, 2012. After a night of storms in Baltimore, there is a brisk wind tearing through the town. Let us begin anew. I am excited to see where we all go next.


Tim Kabara

Audio Reviews : Isn't It Worse by Hard Girls, 26 Oct 2012 16:37:44 -0400

I have to hand it to Emile Berliner: the gramophone record is one resilient piece of technological kit. Over a century old and still in regular use amongst the music-loving masses, Berliner’s grooved analog disc has withstood decade after decade of continuous advances from competing audio storage formats, losing ground to the likes of reel-to-reel, 8-track, cassette tapes, and optical discs yet never quite ceding the field. Despite spending close to thirty years outside of the mercantile limelight, to this day, the venerable vinyl record (the more durable and high-fidelity evolution of Berliner’s original, lo-fi, hard rubber and resin discs) remains the archival medium of choice for serious music collectors and dedicated audiophiles alike.

It may seem strange that such a clunky and outmoded medium as the vinyl record has managed to stick around so long past its mass-market expiration date, but it is stranger still that vinyl is enjoying something of a renaissance as of late. Over the past decade or so—running roughly in parallel with the rise of digital music downloads and the attendant implosion of the music industry’s CD-centric, brick-and-mortar retail strategy—the vinyl record has found itself transformed from a fetishized relic, quaint anachronism, and limited-edition rarity to, in a many cases, the only physical format in which new albums are made available. To top it off, there’s also been a sly reentrance into the pop-cultural hive-mind: watch a live musical performance on any late-night variety show from Leno to Colbert, and you’ll likely see the host handling a vinyl copy of the featured artist’s brand-new album.

Yeah, that’s right. Mainstream artists shilling long-player records on network and cable television… in 2012! How unexpected is that?

Indeed, the vinyl record simply will not quit, and for many a good reason. For one thing, there’s a sense of immediacy to the format: its 12x12” covers are boldly graphic and highly visible, far more so than the relatively scant 4.25x4.25” canvas afforded by a compact disc. Moreover, the records themselves are obviously tangible, and are accompanied by a sort of ritualized significance. Rather than simply press a button, click a mouse, or absentmindedly tap a touchscreen, the vinyl devotee needs to ease the record from its jacket, remove it from the sleeve, place it upon the turntable, position the tone-arm, drop the needle, and wait for the diamond tip to find its analog groove; listen, flip, and repeat. Really, it’s a relatively involved process, and the willful inconvenience of the decidedly un-portable and equipment-intensive vinyl record requires a concerted effort from the listener, as well as a conscientious connection to the music—far more so than, say, the background noise of an hours-long iPod playlist or a never-ending Spotify station.

For another, far more pragmatic reason: the stand-alone vinyl record is a relatively “secure” format, insofar as it is much more difficult and time-consuming to manually convert its contents to MP3 than from a standard-issue CD, which helps to preclude, if not outright prevent, the casual ripping, sharing, burning, and bootlegging of albums that has plagued the music industry since the advent of readily-accessible CD-RW and peer-to-peer file-sharing technologies in the late Nineties.

Admittedly, many modern vinyl records, whether brand-new or re-released, come pre-packaged with single-use download codes so that listeners can acquire a legitimate, DRM-free digital copy of the album for portable enjoyment, the existence of which more-or-less makes vinyl’s “security” a moot point. But still. Given the cultural cachet surrounding vinyl as a dedicated collector’s format, the underlying assumption is that those who purchase vinyl records are disinclined towards digital music in general, whether legally-obtained or otherwise, and are therefore that much less likely to participate in legally dubious peer-to-peer file-sharing in the first place. The egalitarian technological advances of the past decade have undoubtedly made it that much easier for independent bands and artists to self-record, produce, and distribute their music via the digital æther, but the music industry has a history that is, as yet, largely grounded in (and built upon) material possessions. As vinyl’s longevity has shown, the allure of the album-as-object remains strong among avid listeners and dedicated collectors, to the point where the modern analog record can be considered something of a concession to those who prefer to have their favourite albums in-hand and on-shelf—a subset of listeners that oftentimes includes the musicians themselves.

Consider, then, that the physical record is a point of pride for artists and musicians, a reminder of their dedication to their craft and a symbol of all that they have accomplished, or yet hope to. After all, what is a certified silver, gold, platinum, or diamond record but a bedazzled recreation of that all-important first pressing? Perhaps even more so than an industry-certified award, the ability for artists and musicians to have their albums permanently in-hand is a sign that they made something—that their contribution matters. The physical record exists in a way that a digital download never truly can. If seeing is believing, then doubtless there is some reassurance to be found in actually holding the fruits of one’s labours.


Which brings us, at last, to Isn’t It Worse, the debut full-length album from San Jose’s Hard Girls.

Recorded with longtime soundboard collaborator Skylar Suorez at Sharkbite Studios in Oakland, CA, Isn’t It Worse is the first-ever crowd-funded release from Jeff “Bomb the Music Industry!” Rosenstock’s Really Records imprint. In the run-up to the album’s official debut, Rosenstock and the lads of Hard Girls took to the Internet to raise $3500 in pre-orders and supplemental donations to cover production costs for a then-hypothetical vinyl LP, with a bevy of Kickstarter-esque bonuses—limited-edition posters, t-shirts, ‘zines, demo tapes, and “tasteful nudes”—offered in exchange for larger, wholly optional, and modestly-priced buy-ins.

Fully funded in little more than a week—at which point Hard Girls released an unabashedly sweet thank-you video to their donors, as well as made a full download of the album available for free via Rosenstock’s other imprint, the all-digital, donation-based Quote Unquote Records—Isn’t It Worse is a case study in how the Digital Revolution has upended traditional business practices and redefined the relationship between artist, audience, and album. Rather than rely on contractually-entangled advances from profit-driven record labels in order to mass-produce and distribute a new album (which could very well flop, leaving a whole lot of unsold units and a net loss for artist and label alike), independent bands like Hard Girls have discovered that they can appeal directly to their fan-base via online pre-orders and fundraisers, effectively rightsizing their overhead costs to suit the project in question. Savvy savvy savvy.

Sure, this may mean that bands like Hard Girls can only offer a relatively small number of physical albums to their fans—in this case, a limited first pressing of vinyl LPs from Really Records, plus an additional 250 EP-addended cassette tapes from Lauren Records—but it also means that those albums which do get made end up in the hands of those who really wanted them in the first place, while the perpetual availability of the digital album means that even Johnny- and Jane-Come-Lately listeners can enjoy what Isn’t It Worse has to offer.

And there certainly is a lot to enjoy here. A whip-smart power-trio comprised of members of punk-ish San Jo mainstays Pteradon and Shinobu (who also double as the backing band for Jesse Michaels’ Classics of Love), Hard Girls juxtapose the spastic, angular guitar heroics of Sebadoh and the rumbling bar-rock rhythms of Thin Lizzy with the anthemic passion of Hüsker Dü and the personal-turned-proverbial narratives of the Mountain Goats. Keeping pace with Max Feshbach’s frenetic, perpetual-motion percussion, six-string word-slinger Mike Huguenor trades off lead and backing vocal duties with growling-from-the-gut bass-master Morgan Herrell, their back-and-forth observations on the trials and tribulations of First World subsistence-living coming across like a series of well-placed sucker-punches to the midriff.

Understand this: the bracing body-blows of tracks like “Focus on the Tedium” and “Hot for the Halo”, what with their taut combination of unfocused energy and unsettling visions accented by bright riffs and infectious rhythms, are intended less to put the audience down for the count than to force them to knuckle up and fight back. Sure, dwelling on “shit pizza shit food shit life”, half-empty beds, and dreams of bottomless chasms can be a total buzz-kill, but it’s important to remember that, in spite of such worldly troubles and existential dread, “today is just a stopgap for tomorrow”, even if “all the truths are etched in broken bones when you focus on the tedium”.

That is: feel free to stop and lick your wounds, but don’t forget to learn from your mistakes while you’re at it, and to use what you’ve learned to make yourself faster, better, stronger. Get back up and get back at it, y’dig?

After a bloody first two rounds, “My Buddy Valentine” and “Second Glimmer” return to their corners for a brief respite from knock-down, drag-out dwelling on soul-deadening day-to-day drudgery. Rather, the former serves as a nod to the mindless decompression of a laid-back evening with friends; the latter, an endearing ode to clumsy young romance, all holding hands and sucking face in public spaces.

“Fed by the Eater” beats a tack away from such youthful idylls, its fuzzy riffs, steady rhythms, and reminiscent duets setting a course from innocent childish escapades to adult uncertainty and unexpected expenditures, eventually arriving at an extended instrumental breakdown worthy of J Mascis and Lou Barlow.

Returning to fighting form in “Swamp with Potential”, Hard Girls come out swinging with fists full of punk-rock piss and vinegar, all buzzsaw guitar and punchy percussion turned out in support of internalized anxieties about miscommunication, wasted opportunities, and active avoidance of confrontation:

“And so we say that there’s nothing to say, all the silence and the horror sidle up along the boredom with their stupid rhymes. Why can’t we say what we’re meaning to say? Oh, I swamp with potential but I’m always just singing these stupid fucking rhymes.”

Next up, “Mary-Anne” trades in social anxiety for bittersweet sentimentality. Essentially taking a page from Herrell’s acoustic-fronted side-project I Sing the Body Electric, “Mary-Anne” serves up a country-fried blues ballad about two far-from-perfect lovers trying to make ends meet, and maybe even make a life together. Similarly, Huguenor borrows from his own (roughly autobiographical) solo efforts in “San Francisco”, his electrified busker’s croon proffering a not-so-fond farewell note to hearth, home, and the relentless grip of personal history. Grand slices of life, both, and a nice side-by-side display of the solid songwriting which Hard Girls have to offer.

Still, it’s album-ender “Major Payne” which brings the full force of Hard Girls to bear. Boasting propulsive percussion, thrumming bass, rousing vocals, cutting guitar riffage, and an anthemic assessment of twenty-something ennui, “Major Payne” lands line after sing-along line like a series of precision punches from a veteran pugilist, its short sharp shocks to the senses bringing all the minor tragedies and daily indignities of modern American life into stark relief only to wipe them all away with a playful jab and a reassuring grin in the form of Huguenor’s calming outro—as if to say, “Sure, things may look pretty grim at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that you should just knuckle under this early in the match. Square up and dig deep, ‘cause there’re people out there cheering you on, and you’d better not let them down.”

All told, Hard Girls’ Isn’t It Worse is a stellar full-length debut from an all-around excellent band, one which taps into the bitter core of existential dread lurking deep within the hearts of the Not-So-Young-Nor-Invincibles—whereat it finds, of all things, a sort of hopeful bemusement attached to a stubborn will to survive, to do something that matters, and to leave behind a record for posterity.

Isn’t it worse? Nah. With a band like Hard Girls out there, I’d say it’s pretty grand, actually.

Digitally released on October 16, 2012 by Quote Unquote Records, Hard Girls’ Isn’t It Worse is available in LP and cassette formats from, respectively, Really Records and Lauren Records.

Print Reviews : Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, 17 Oct 2012 22:00:03 -0400

What is the state of race relations in the Obama-era United States? This is the question posed by Michael Chabon's novel Telegraph Avenue. Unfortunately, the book does not provide an answer. It instead offers a beautifully-drawn jumble of a portrait.

Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe run the Brokeland record store in a literal and figurative borderland between Oakland and Berkeley. The black/white duo struggles to come to grips with Brokeland's impending demise at the hands of a soon-to-be-built megastore. Nat and Archy are bound together by their collective residence in the past, chatting on a corded land line telephone and clinging to deep cuts off their prized '70s vinyl. If you did not already guess, Brokeland is a metaphor for interracial relationships. If that wasn't already clear, Chabon is going to spell it out for you. As Archy says, "when people start looking at other people, people not like them, one thing they often end up liking about those people is their music. Th[at]'s sort of a, what, an ideal that I know Nat and me always had in mind for this store." In at least one interview, Chabon has even likened Brokeland to Huck and Jim in the raft.

So if Brokeland is doomed, is there hope for blacks and whites to ever be friends once again? Fear not: Nat's son Julius befriends Archy's long-lost son, Titus. In this too-convenient turn of events, our figurative hopes for interracial friendships are restored, having come full circle. But if all's well that ends well, what is the point of the novel?

Archy and Nat's sons aren't the only black/white duo that hits a few bumps in the eponymous Avenue. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, occupy a subplot. Gwen ("the Alice Waters of midwives") and Aviva run a home-birthing practice, another independent business experiencing an existential crisis. This storyline is the weakest of the novel. Couldn't the women be involved in something, well, less female-centric? Besides putting the novel's women in stereotypical roles, the midwifery plot line relies on trite satires of Berkeley liberals. It's not that Berkeley isn't worthy of satire, its that we've been here before (Pynchon's Vineland, to name just one example).

If the novel's muddled message and tired satire don't disappoint you, Chabon's recycled plot devices might. We've seen these plot elements before: fathers reunited with sons (Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay); young gay men coming of age (Mysteries of Pittsburgh); omniscient parrot narrators (The Final Solution). In some instances, Chabon's recurring themes can be powerful. When Julius and Titus venture into downtown Oakland, they gaze upon the city with a wonder matching the majesty described in Chabon's earlier work, such as the "cloud factory" of Mysteries of Pittsburgh or the Empire State Building in Kavalier & Clay. In Oakland's ports, "the container boxes... [were] monster piles of colored brick like stabs at some ambitious Lego project left unfinished, interchangeable as casino chips." In other instances, though, Chabon employs plot devices that are downright cliche. When Gwen herself is about to give birth, the story races to a predictable climax. (She even says, in boilerplate dialogue, "you need to get me to the hospital.") The very premise of 'interracial record store owners amid hustlers and a changing neighborhood' even recalls George Pelecanos's Sweet Forever.

If Telegraph Avenue's story is unoriginal, its prose is anything but. It reads as if the Stallings family's Chinese kung fu instructor, Irene Jew, of, yes, the "Jew-Tang Clan," had taught Chabon creative writing at her Bruce Lee Institute. Chabon doesn't write like Archy's father Luther fights in his blaxploitation classic, "Strutter," though. This book is more like mixed martial arts. While Telegraph Avenue tips its hat (somewhat bafflingly) to Quentin Tarantino, Chabon avoids over-stylizing African American dialogue. Some characters may 'talk black,' but the narrator is Chabon and his voice is as clear and comic as ever.

Michael Chabon is likely one of the best American novelists alive. The strength of the prose in Telegraph Avenue proves it. Chabon's best work explores our relationship to literature and mines our dreams and anxieties. Telegraph Avenue, an attempt at satire, does not achieve the epic heights of Kavalier & Clay or the genre-bending imagination of The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Worst of all, it doesn't ring true to this reader. I've never been to Oakland, but the relationships between Archy and Nat, Gwen and Aviva, or Julius and Titus - mostly free of anxiety, self-consciousness, or awkwardness - match few of the interracial friendships that I've known. Chabon's optimism challenges the dark vision Jonathan Lethem put forth in his stunning but bleak Fortress of Solitude but perhaps overshoots the target. If people really did get along like these characters, maybe we would actually be closer to a real post-racial America.

Audio Reviews : S/T by Horse Lords, 03 Sep 2012 18:56:23 -0400

There is always something invigorating about musicians from the avant-garde playing around with conventional rock music forms. They bring to the proceeding a willful contrarianism and playfulness that can be rejuvenating. There is also a clinical demolition at work along with a questioning openness. Who put the “bomp” in the “bomp, bah bomp, bah bomp”? What if we took the “ram” out of the “rama lama ding dong”? What if it was just “bomp rama, bomp rama”?

Some locals have called Horse Lords a supergroup. Certainly, Andrew Bernstein, Max Eilbacher, Owen Gardner, and Sam Haberman each have a mountain of noise tapes, jammed out LPs, and westside noise shows on their resumes. Still, it does not seem right to think of them as Baltimore’s Traveling Wilburys. They are happy dwellers in the Baltimore music and arts underground who have come together to do something, and that something is Horse Lords. It appears as simple as that.

“Wildcat Strike” is side one.

We begin in fuzzed-out bass strikes before the hypnotic build begins. Repetitive guitar lines shimmer. The bass plugs along while the two drummers get into it, one riding a cowbell like his life depended on it. What seems like a live jam starts to melt and swarm up right before a drum fill brings things to a full boil. There is something so excellent and hypnotic about the general instrument interlock, the way the shifts happen gradually over time, feeling loose and improvised. This allows them to hit the listener harder, shivers running up your spine when the guitar suddenly becomes a thumb piano and a banjo at the same time. Minimalist repetition and open tunings in another group’s hands could be a meandering mess, but the Lords manage to keep it right and tight. The drums start to melt around the ten minute mark and the track warps out before crashing back to earth. And that’s when Bernstein’s reed instrumentation kicks in to take the listener even higher. We end in demolitions and reconstructions of the groove, all haunted echo drum hits and guitar squiggles.

“Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?” is side two.

Some crazy layered and echoed tape work begins the second excursion. The bass soon begins pulsing and the group draws up to cast again to see where things go this time. The drums echo while the music moves forward, different tactics taken. The guitarist plays like he is trying to pick a musical lock, each dive and swoop similar but working a different angle. Things grow louder and more complex. There is a pause around the four minute mark and then Horse Lords begin their run across the territory they explore so well. As the poet once said, “this is the trip, the best part I really like.” But you must take the journey to and from this apex to truly appreciate it. We come down, the bass exploring the nuances of its groove as the guitar continues skittering around it. We cycle back around to the peak of the jam, this time coming on much stronger for the true climax of the journey.

The end of side two is the big come-down, an excursion in muted ambient tones, comparable at times to Jim O’Rourke and his most John Fahey-inspired. Synths drift in for a prolonged zoned out outro. What at first is mellow interaction grows in sharpness as the musical conversation continues. The fact that the group lets this piece dominate a third of the record’s runtime allows another side of the Lords to be showcased. The guitars come slowly clanging back in towards the end of the track for one last orgiastic crescendo.

Horse Lords serve as a welcome addition to the Baltimore music and arts underground. Their bold exploration and demolition of conventional rock forms is liberating and challenging. If this is your cup of tea, imbibe heartily and enjoy the ride.

Horse Lords will play a record release show on Saturday, September 8th at Current Gallery’s Current Space (421 North Howard Street) with White Life, Tween Omens, Duncan Moore (bagpipe), and The Soft Pink Truth in support. Shows at Current begin and end early (8:00 PM- 11:00 PM).

Audio Reviews : Am I Right or Am I Right by Fulton Lights, 01 Sep 2012 00:08:41 -0400

It was roughly two years ago that I was introduced to the pop-rock compositions of Baltimore-born singer-songwriter Andrew Spencer Goldman. Specifically, to the self-published 3 Songs EP by Fulton Lights, the collaborative successor to Goldman’s previous work as Maestro Echoplex. Featuring horns by Peter Hess of World/Inferno Friendship Society, percussion by T.J. Lipple of Aloha, and guitar by John Davis of Title Tracks, the 3 Songs EP was a short-but-sweet hit of hazy vocals, gritty riffs, and taught kitwork accented by sharp shots of synth and burnished by resonant brass and reeds.

It was a familiar sound to be sure, but it was one which Goldman & co. were more than able to make their own. Better yet, they decided—with the help of Eggs’ Rob Christiansen, The Future Brite’s Karen Kanan Corrêa, and Bon Savants’ Thom Moran—to further expand and explore this sound in Fulton Lights’ third full-length, Am I Right or Am I Right. Never know who (or what) is going to show up next, really.

On record, the latest permutation of the Fulton Lights ensemble comes across like a modern blend of Neil Young, Jim Morrison, and the E Street Band filtered through Beck Hansen, Wayne Coyne, James Mercer, and Isaac Brock—that is, the essential folk-tinged blues-rock with a big band bent, now layered with spacey atmospherics, emboldened by psychedelic tweaks, and accented with angular avant-pop touches. As haphazard as that may read, Am I Right or Am I Right manages to drift around the modern pop-rock spectrum with remarkable ease and agility, nigh-seamlessly segueing from the blues-y, head-bobbing apologies of “Baby I’m Tryin’” (dig that twinkling toy piano and rousing saxophone) to the funky rhythms, crunchy guitar, and squawking organ of “Can’t Take My Love”, then from the manic beat and reverb-drenched guitar-rock of “Don’t Go Away So Soon” to the reggae-affecting croons and cries of “If You Can Make It Through the Dark”. Rather limber, this lot.

Title track “Am I Right or Am I Right” throws sturdy funk rhythms and psych-rock trippiness against the ecstatic sing-song cadence of a fire-and-brimstone street preacher for some quick-rhyming and gleefully paradoxical theo-philosophizing. Next, there are the sharp left turns presented by the torch-carrying coos and synthetic shimmer of “We Were Young and That Was Long Ago”, the shockingly (for this bunch) straightforward pop-rock punch of “Don’t Let the Animals In”, and the sexy-time grooves of “A Minor Happenstance as Things Go”. Shifting gears once again, “The Riddle in Me” proffers a slow-building, somber rumination on personal development and present dissatisfaction, its hyper-affected guitar skittering and scratching alongside propulsive bass, weighty percussion, and emphatic sax.

Rounding out the album, “Still Dreaming the Same Dreams” gets low, slow, and reflective before “Stout Hearts, Feeble Minds” rockets back up with buzzsaw riffs, toe-tapping rhythms, and sundry effects while calling out to the audience to “Keep your hands up, it’s a holdup!”—less a threat than a polite request, albeit one with which a live audience would likely be all too happy to comply.

Fair warning: for as frequently as Andrew Spencer Goldman and his fellows in Fulton Lights mix and match their manifold musical swatches, Am I Right or Am I Right can seem a bit hectic and scattershot at first blush. Still, once the initial shock wears off, it’s easy to see how well the whole lot hangs together, making consecutive listens all the more inviting and rewarding. So, dig in.

Self-released on September 1, 2012, Fulton Lights’ Am I Right or Am I Right is available for purchase in digital and limited-edition LP formats via Bandcamp.

Audio Reviews : America by Dan Deacon, 27 Aug 2012 16:54:34 -0400

Dan Deacon moved to Baltimore in 2004 with some friends from college. After setting up shop with the other founding members of the Wham City collective among the wilds of the local music and arts underground, he began touring, bringing his interactive live show to first the nation and then the world.

On America, his highly anticipated third album, Dan got to take his time after years of being in a hurry. He utilized the talents of many locals to work out his ideas in a recording space he had custom-built in Baltimore. Chester Gwazda, Denny Bowen, Robert O’Brien, Rich O’Meara and a small army of others (including students from the Peabody Institute, a preeminent Baltimore music conservatory) were happy to join in to help him achieve his vision.

The resulting record is just a heck of a time, a party and a sermon, a serious composition and a gleeful joyride. It is the culmination of years of hard work and musical progression on the part of Deacon and Company. The densely layered but never too busy tracks have congealed into forms both light and dark. Each reveals still more when scrutinized, seemingly always more there to discover.

“Guilford Avenue Bridge” snaps the album into action via an angry oscillating serpent before the thunder drums kick in and defeat it. We are building and building and building, layer upon layer. Right when we think we know what is going to happen, the track skews sideways, then flips upside-down. For a moment, the listener wonders if the disc is skipping before we drop out into free fall, sample and loop technique in full effect, 1988 Public Enemy meets any-era Steve Reich. We jump-cut back to the party, which is now a total rager. The cops are outside. What should we do?

The delightful lilt of second single “True Thrush” has been the anthem of the Baltimore summer, all orchestrated sunshine and carefully calibrated jaunt (full disclosure: the author appears around the “two minute” mark of the video for the song). You know things have gotten next level when that insane bridge kicks in. Is someone playing a drum kit made of rubber ducks and pinball machine bumpers? And we haven’t even gotten to the cartoon cat chorus! An endless delight, underscored by dark lyrics like “live the lies you’ve been sold/ as the nightmare unfolds/ if you don’t mind.”

First single “Lots” was a bit of an ice-breaker when first released. We know this sort of Dan Deacon song from the live good time. Things are kept straight ahead, Dan’s vocals distorted, the leader of the rally. It is hard to listen to this song and not see this past insane American year flying by, the potential for real change hanging in the air like an electric charge. There is one choice to make and that is to get ready to go.

“Prettyboy” is aptly named, a shimmer through synth-waterfalls, pulsing drumbeats and piano rolls. This is composed stuff, ready for the concert hall, and a good preview of what is to come in the second movement. The listener gets lost bathing among the rolling and repeating waves of sound.

But, we must come back to Earth for one more harsh jam, a “Crash Jam” to be more exact. The sharp edges of the synth-sentries at the gate stand in contrast to the gentle vocal take. Wait, is that a didgeridoo or is someone throat singing? How can the song stay so fuzzed out yet still manage to swing like this? We end in a frenzy of robot and human drumming, an army of hologram Keith Moons going to town, ending side one with a bang.

The second movement, the four part “USA”, is clearly Deacon’s most ambitious work to date. We begin our journey in the orchestra pit with “Is a Monster”, things building to the first rise up ahead. We can see mountains in the distance. We climb the mountain before the noise beasts enter, percussive and cussing as a vocal chorus takes us on the mountain’s edge. The song builds in an entirely new direction, like a storm rising up, consuming the human voice.

We are now in the dronescape, lost but looking up at the sky of “The Great American Desert.” A caravan approaches and we get seduced by the percussive movement and join in the journey. Before we know it, we are gliding along and seeing new wonders, mirages of a desert oasis. Things keep clanging as the winds whip up around us.

The percussion is picking up, becoming more rhythmic and orderly, soon taking over entirely, as marimba waltzes with drum kit, maraca and who knows what else to get us started on the “Rail”. We drop out and just ride, piano loops and string plucks in and out of sync with one another, the forward motion growing. Once the stuttering horns kick in, we are well on our way, the music growing more complex with each interval.

The drumbeat, steady and solid, begins the final movement “Manifest”, various motifs returning for one more powerful push forward across the plains. The vocals, layered and echoed, evoke an apocalyptic conversation among Elementals at the mountaintop. When we return to the composition’s opening movement for that last big swell, you can see Dan at conductor’s stand, reeling in this big sucker.

Dan Deacon’s new album is an epic journey and push forward, deserving of a standing ovation and well worth the wait. Both the first listen and the fiftieth can be a rewarding experience. America is not of an age, but for all time. ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED.

Prose : Horseback: A Play by Jared T. Fischer, 12 Aug 2012 15:48:27 -0400
MINERVA, friend of Cymba; her family owns horses
CYMBA, friend of Minerva; he is from the city <]]>


MINERVA, friend of Cymba; her family owns horses
CYMBA, friend of Minerva; he is from the city
CINCINNATI, one of Minerva’s horses
BLEU, another of Minerva’s horses
SUN, the sun


[It is a humble horse farm behind a wooden fence along Joppa Road on the way to Perry Hall in Baltimore County. The enormous sun, arisen, perches at the height of the sky like a black, red, yellow eyeball gazing down with or without the look of judgment. At least two horses, visible from the road, stand lazily in place behind the fence, wiping away buzzing little flies. In front of the fence, a young couple has recently met up, possibly for horseback riding as this is a farm that offers lessons at a decent rate. They are Minerva whose family owns the farm and Cymba from the city. Leaning on the fence and looking at the horses, they presently reach our ears with their voices.]

MINERVA: Don’t disrespect my horses. Seriously, do better with your life.

CYMBA: I was just saying that their tails look dirty flipping away flies.

MINERVA: I know but that is life. Life is dirty. And I can’t tolerate a grown man saying shit about my horses.

CYMBA: How about I say nothing? [He goes to kiss her. She smacks him very hard—it’s kind of dark and sexual.] Well that was corrupt!

MINERVA: You liked it. Can’t you still taste my fingers? You know I brushed dirty little Cincinnati. You know you like how she tastes.

CYMBA: Fuck you. I like how you taste if you would give me more.

MINERVA: You’ve had a taste. I’m not inclined to grant permission. Try to take something. Take it or leave it.

CYMBA: You want me to advance on you and get smacked and get brushed and beaten down so you can laugh and hold it back from me?

MINERVA: No other way to get at it. That’s the way I am. This life of mine—the love part of it, at least. I ain’t one for pity parties or rewards. I am not giving shit away unless the right kind of man or woman fights me. And I mean really fights me. I already hate so much about adult lovemaking: the boring crying of simple shits; fucking grown babies ad infinitum.

CYMBA: So that’s why you get on with horses. Please tell me you ain’t fucking them.

MINERVA: Why does it all have to be about sex? I am talking about love. Like when I made the boat with you in the shed and we worked all day and argued. That was love. That was better than any Salt Lake City intercourse or bedroom eyes whatever. People need to do a better job of weaving sex into the main fabric of love—like a grandmother working on something real: a doily to display at Christmas.

CYMBA: Bringing grandma in!

MINERVA: As a grandmother is a head of power and wisdom, she should rightly be in all things and all considerations. Would you ever not bring wisdom and strength to a consideration of life?

[He does not say anything. He thinks he tastes a weird horse taste on his tongue like salty hair.]

MINERVA: And don't you think it's fucked up that as a society we are so into young girls and young boys and we forget all about the physical life of our elders? Shit, a man who could get aroused by a grandmother would stand up better in my book. That might steam it up for me. But all this obsession with young girls and boys is toxic and boring.

CYMBA: You're right there. You know, they're building up stars so young these days that even late twenty-somethings like us are considered crusty unusable old folks.

MINERVA: It makes me seriously want to riot. But I don't want blood on my hands. I discovered that the real way to riot is just to live your own life so passionately and intensely and by your own set of rules. Like, come here. Touch Cincinnati on her hindquarter and feel how warm she gets. That is blood. I want blood. I want your blood if you will love me.

CYMBA: Can't you talk normal? I know what you mean and it sounds pretty. But it sounds so funny even just between us with no one else here.

MINERVA: Funny but not boring, right?

CYMBA: It could be considered boring too.

MINERVA: Here, then touch me. Right on my neck. Right here. [She squeezes his hand violently and pulls his arm and makes his hand lightly choke her neck.]

CYMBA: Stop that choking shit.

MINERVA: We won't ever really go far into it. It is just that strange best feeling of the start of violence in love. Never to be completed.

CYMBA: Those who complete it have to be out there. But I don't want that sick shit around me.

MINERVA: It's sicker to be afraid. What laws are you afraid of? There is the start of violence in nature and nature loves the earth. There is the start of violence in both the fly that bites the horse and the horse that shoos off the fly.

CYMBA: You started the violence between us for sure.

[She is quiet, unhearing and involved in examining the horse Cincinnati. Or maybe her mind has recorded the offered weakness of his response. It is not the real ferocity of his spirit. His tight little response just barely covers his interior command like the hide of a horse covering up real blood, muscle and bone.]

MINERVA: Be yourself around me.

CYMBA: I’m not?

MINERVA: When we worked on the boat you were.

CYMBA: Our dreams were locked up together at that moment. I liked that.

MINERVA: We wanted the same thing that life had not given, and we were soon tackling each other to complete the boat the right way for that dream we shared—sailing out and away. Out of the bay and picking up again and hitting the ocean waves.

CYMBA: More than the boat itself we built from scratch that day. You corrected me at every step. You were the expert and I was trying my hardest to learn from you. But I also tried to be important and knowledgeable because I thought you would not like me.

MINERVA: It was whatever. We developed our fighting play like two children in a sandbox.

CYMBA: Oooo. A sandbox. Wish I could be in a sandbox with you. Then I would fight for real. We could not hurt each other and there would be water and wet sand and worms that I could place in your hair like ribbons.

MINERVA: Okay. So I’m going to teach you to ride a horse.

CYMBA: Not me. I’m sorry but I am scared shitless of horseback plus I get motion sickness.

MINERVA: I know when you don’t get motion sickness. I actually know when you give motion sickness and it feels good. Trust that.

CYMBA: You’re a freak. Most other people said I sucked at that.

MINERVA: They must have been corpses that you went into by mistake.

CYMBA: Right. Glad you think so.

MINERVA: But who cares about mistakes when the horses teach you how to fall?

CYMBA: They do? Look at you leaping logically from the bed to bareback. Pure genius.

MINERVA: The physical appropriateness of the associative leap is obvious. A person thinks in the language of her activities.

CYMBA: Okay. . . . Then let me ask how you learned to fall on your feet and be always upright and ready to ride again. Weren’t you ever bashed or crushed by an unruly horse?

MINERVA: I was twice. A third time I ran for my life. The third horse was psycho.

CYMBA: Is he still around?

MINERVA: Fuck no. My folks moved him away, and I started fresh with Cincinnati. I like a ride that I can at least trust if not anticipate.

[He takes a moment to examine Cincinnati. He lifts his arm tentatively to pet her, and he is only a bit scared. Cincinnati is not the psycho horse. Minerva obviously adores Cincinnati and takes great pride in brushing and showing her off. What the heck—learning to ride from her on a horse like Cincinnati would not be half bad no matter how dirty her tail looks with its patronizing flies. And motion sickness be damned, he is down for an adventure with her again.]

MINERVA: Here, slip through this fence and let’s get you started on Cincinnati.



[The two friends are riding. You see the slow horse heads hobble up like small waves of a stuttering sea. The sun splits green and white, no longer red in its first seconds of dropping. The sky washes itself with emerald foam. The horses start slowly under the human weight. Once their occupation feels more natural—when they know the pulls and prods—they pick up the pace. They reach a rhythm half originated in the riders and half their own. We find nature thus on nature, but what souls (if souls are natural) ever join in a relationship?]

CYMBA: Cincinnati, dipping left like how she keeps going, scares me. If she collapses and I go under, I’ll probably puke on my broken bones.

MINERVA: My Cin don’t dip. Let her do her thing. Mind yourself, don’t screw with her or be needlessly afraid on her and you’ll be okay.

CYMBA: You sure that sun isn’t putting her to sleep? It’s blinding me. All in front of me, the glare burns as green and pink as a watermelon.

MINERVA: We can eat watermelon later if you don’t complain too much and persist as a turnoff.

CYMBA: I know! I have to take everything stoically. I have to ride proudly, be militaristic, instinctual and sensual to get on a girl’s good side, your good side. To win you!

MINERVA: I am not a girl. And no one ever wins me. That’s cemented. As I've said, no one ever gets more than he or she takes from me, which is not always what I give. And try to take something I have no desire to give. Brought down and suppressed, you’ll never rethink your transgression. You won’t have the capacity. You’ll be a living regret, and I may never have even touched you.

CYMBA: So spooky and dramatic, overconfident of your desirability and your repulsiveness. But that’s not why I don’t try. I am not a man. Don't know what I am, but I don’t wish to try to take what I want—which is so often unattainable, inconceivable—from another person or from a horse. Realistically, I derive all that I need from inside me, though my insides are painful and full of paranoia. No joyride for me but the internal, personal, self-inflicted ecstasies and agonies. It’s silly what this world expects out of me, and what nature expects is far worse.

MINERVA: Then run nature into the ground. Stomp on your snakes and ride your horse. Everything is just as natural as unnatural. Be a fool on a horse in the sundown farm of love.

CYMBA: That is so good. Ha! That is great. The sundown farm of—

MINERVA: What kind of love did you make before you knew me?

CYMBA: I think I must have been a mirror in a hallway, caught by a thoughtless world of suns that reached through windows to find me with their fingers. I hung myself against a wall to reflect the light and heat enlarged by my disorder. But washing white and yellow under the influence of incident rays, I cast off all of them. In my anxiety of incoming warmth, I threw away the suns at different angles against the opposite walls. Never alone, I made myself lonely.

MINERVA: You are a strange little obscurity man. I mean how and why did you kiss, who did you go with?

CYMBA: There was my friend Laure. We got close at a campsite. Our high school had gone camping at Echo Hill. While on the beach with the group, she and I both got in trouble for drinking and talking loudly past bedtime. Our supervisor sent us away from the group down to a far end of the beach, intended to be lonely, to make us regret our behavior. We had red ticks crawling under us all night and they attacked our legs and made us miserable. But Laure and I decided to hold each other without even really talking about it. We looked at each other and the heat of the alcohol was in our eyes. It felt necessary to be in each other's arms, it felt as necessary as pitching a tent or starting a fire to cook food in the wild. But we also did not have a tent as part of our punishment. The supervisor just gave us towels to sleep on.

MINERVA: What was Laure like?

CYMBA: She literally was not like anything or anyone. It is really strange for me. When I am very close to another person, all I can sense is me. My brain, my embarrassment, my nerve endings. I go so very far away as I want more and more from the experience of the other person. The alcohol helped out so much. It made me very emotional and easy like mud slipping down a hill or a community forgetting about an old woman dying.

MINERVA: The old woman dies on the cross for the sins of amateurs. Did you do anything to Laure then and there?

CYMBA: Laure grabbed absolute hold of me. There came this watery fire in her eyes. She came on top of me and took what she needed from me, which was very little. And then she waited, not in a mean-spirited fashion. But she was certainly careless. She did not say anything but kept breathing close to me and she tried to sleep. It was then this stupid thing I felt like she expected me to take revenge, but she hoped I would not.

MINERVA: You were slow with her? You thought all around first?

CYMBA: I questioned why I could not feel anything. It felt lazy to even desire a single additional touch or intensity. I asked, in my mind, Is the whole world boring? She was close to my body and the inactivity was perfect enough like a pink cloud above a city. It was a queer living photograph and I did not want a stupid cinema to impose drama on our night of punishment.

MINERVA: Shut up! Night of punishment. What was Laure like when she was taking what she wanted from you?

CYMBA: I could hardly pay attention. She was different from the biting ticks. She was kind of like the sun. She kept me alive, kept me conscious of small details, like the subtle burns on the top of your head during a warm day outside. She was present, but her smallest, most active part was alienated and alienating. She went on and I was so happy for her. It felt good to be this desired tool, and yet I felt crazy scared and embarrassed to want anything from her. It felt like a store wall of stupid clocks going in an established but unsatisfactory direction. The time of any life is near enough to death.

MINERVA: Funny. With me you lick the platter clean.

CYMBA: I kissed Laure so much that night, all over. I cried without crying as I went over her resting body. What did she feel with each imprint? The embarrassing consciousness made me desire a gun to blast my brains out. I drank more and went over her body. The moon dropped behind the bay. I heard other people talking from the far away tents, from which we were banished. Her body tested me, her quiet breathing did as well. Did I deserve to live? I had no complete satisfaction from myself, though I ended what I started. Her closeness asked a foreign thing of me or maybe nothing at all. It hurt me more.

MINERVA: That is no test. The psycho babble, the paranoid penitentiary of your romance is exactly why I take you riding. You need legitimately to shake this shit off. You should be able to ride recklessly, responsibly, dead, alive, a zombie, or whatever. If passion is a poison in your blood, live until you fucking die. Go in and lick her, lick your life, like you have licked me and don't think about it so much. If at your nerve endings await pleasure and pain and uncertainty, then horse around with the brutal stupidity of human life. Have at least something feel decent for a short or long time. This whole magic stupidity of life is a ticking time-bomb. And no one is waiting for you to explode. It is all do it yourself. Ride when it is your time. Nature and non-nature have more than one kind of relationship.

CYMBA: You got me. What's up ahead if we keep on riding?

MINERVA: A breakaway of the hill and a view of the sun. Let's hurry there before it is completely down.



[In this scene, the play ignores the human banter and attempts to use lyrics and actions to give a narrative of the horses under the sun, as they arrive at the hillside, witnessing the full glory of exposure to the dropping sun. White, green, then touches of dead red. Minerva and Cymba are riding for the first time in the play without their totally obnoxious mental conversation. They are apparently still speaking, but less about themselves and more simply about the sights and sounds and the experience leading to the edge, to the great sun. The audience at this point, intentionally, as directed by the playwright, has the IQ of a horse or one fleck of the sunlight. So the human voices sound like occasional, impenetrably watery mumbling. You see the horses, mounted by humans, riding up to the sun at the hill's edge. Phony thought voices, all we really have left, issue from the horses to account for the experience.]

CINCINNATI: Hammers nailing in the wood. Fixing it, getting it in place for the sun.

BLEU: Building a home under the sun. Working together.

CINCINNATI: Showing up on time. A man and a woman or two men or two women, animals building the thing, the one thing in time and it outlives or does not outlive them. They have sex and children and whatever else and breathe, and they say the very stupid things.

SUN: They say the very stupid things because they are my temporal magic of love like the strings of me and the stings of human-thought gods and the stupid washing and scrubbing up and galloping to bed and being happy once.

[The horses, close together and slowly progressing, trot past the circle of dirt road and the tractor near the barn, heading toward the corn licked by the lowering sun's slathering gold tongue. It is so funny, both like a panic and a picnic.]

BLEU: Who knows that I will ever care for gods or whatever, such stupid manmade shit, but really a great life far away from the events of this sun, what would that be? Imagine aliens far away somewhere or in our senses making puppets anywhere, anytime and having that kind of artwork have sex, and all the perversions and deaths and murders and the very optimism of short life and great lives lived successfully and business men, like poison in a shared river, or an emerald that is life for the tribe.

[Separating, growing a little farther apart in their concentrated, variously accelerating and stammering pacing, the horses hop into a queer near gallop, leaving the corn in the dust. Their strong bellies and necks soon crest the ancient hill that faces the pure but regimented and routine-trapped beast, the one wheat sun these simple planet dancers whirl round. A sun sad or happy like a clown on display, day after day.]

CINCINNATI: Yeah. Wonderful business women under the sun in the great coats of life and like the temples and hieroglyphs and the expensive educations, vacations, and also the stupidities, the lack of food, the spilling of the oil everywhere and the score war. Love is merely two or a few or on a good day of rest many people loving each other before they all lapse out (sun gone to rest), or a family loving an entire community: the ideal government of the family before the sun goes down on that animal family of monkeys and horses, and all the sex that merely goes into sustaining a farce (or is it a constitution or creed), and the crops cropping up.

[Horses, humans on the edge. And look, the sun.]

SUN: See me, a time for you, all brainless, to shut up and shut off. In my heat alone a great mystery of one small world, spinning, this universe in relation to or absent from other universes, no matter what powers are beyond, I have you little ones and the great whales in my care and space, I warm you in your animal minds, I care for you in my own fashion, give or take. Who knows? Who cares? Where is the wild world going? And into several great confusions, like little photographs being developed in a darkroom to please an eye or make lonely Minerva and Cymba cry and come together and laugh and play the memorized games. And then the horses turn up on the edge, see me wholly, and fall over. I am still burning lovelessly: clocks forward, imagined clocks backward. Gross stupid weather powers and falling asleep, burning out. Simple loves and simple love talks. Magnetized love of bad horses cognitively leaping down. Amen to my simple entranced spirit, sun on sun, horses, of course. Inhuman kiss on kiss, bathing, in sun just for fun.


Audio Reviews : Rock and Roll by Height with Friends, 06 Aug 2012 18:01:47 -0400

The term “rock and roll” has become so ubiquitous that it borders on meaningless. To many, the “rock and roll lifestyle” is shorthand for a state of excess. Nights of decadence, loud guitars and screaming fans is, seemingly, the norm. It is a life free of consequences, right? The term serves as a quick signifier, useful in commercials and pop songs to tell a clichéd story quickly, a pre-packaged Halloween costume to be bought and sold.

However, to those who actually live the “rock and roll lifestyle” as touring musicians, it is instead a life of grim grinding, pushing against indifference and various obstacles to make the gig, hit, the stage, and have your time in front of an audience. It is a life of endless striving and waiting, of constant risk and occasional reward, of being in the van and away from home, especially now that file sharing has removed the possibility of significant revenue from physical releases.

For Height to call his new album Rock and Roll is a challenge and a re-definition, a rapper in dialogue with the rockers. The lyrical content speaks volumes, an odd tension being created with the album title. No laser light shows here. This is a spare, contemplative record where Height continues to explore (with the help of his Friends) the minimal instrument-based boom-bap that he has made his own, the effect more Nick Drake Pink Moon than Cheap Trick Live at Budokan. Let’s poke around and see if we can catch up with the genre-bursting journey of Height with Friends.

Opening track “I Can’t Stand to Be Refused” is a resolute statement of purpose, the “let’s make hip hop out of our own instrumentation” approach pioneered by the group brought to full fruition. Height explains in rhyme that doing this rock and roll stuff is hard, the Friends a haunting chorus in the background. The PA breaks, the crowd can be indifferent, and the music he is selling does not have to be bought.

Since Height is resolute in his mission, this does not come off as whining or moaning. We continue with “Mustard Seed,” a walk in the deep dark woods, Height’s use of nature imagery reflects themes of death/rebirth. The tools in his sonic toolbox (spidery synth, skeletal guitar lines, just the right drumbeat) kept at a low simmer.

We hit rock bottom early, stuck on the side of the road with “Dead Motor”, Height articulating being in the muck and mud as a spare acoustic guitar loops in the background. Don’t let this one slip by. To tune into the anguish of this track can be palliative and revealing.

An Ed Schrader cover lightens things up a bit, “I Can’t Stop Eating Sugar” given a upbeat hip-hop thump. Still, the narrator’s conundrum is treated with a gravity that fits the general somberness of the record.

Things shift to more of a “grind and shine” attitude with “Hard Work,” the garage rock minimalism pushed forward by a bouncing backbeat. Sure, this rock and roll stuff is a tough row to hoe, but Height can get by on crumbs, right? We are going back to the younger days, the “Bible days” even, to draw the strength and inspiration to continue onward.

But, still, “Too Much Time” seems to indicate that the grind has its consequences. Sleep is hard to find, the night spent preoccupied by worry, trying to drift off while lying on a bed of nails. Perhaps the tea will help, the call and response of the Friends a refracting echo as the sharp pain of insomnia is chronicled.

The brief instrumental “Triumph Over Sadness” is a bit of the Friends coming to the forefront, the mastery of the backing tracks allowed to shine. We must remember, however, that all instruments on this record are played by Height, give or take cameos by high-profile scene luminaries like Andy Stack, Jenn Wasner, Drew Swinburne and recorder/mixer Mickey Free. And where would we be without Mickey and Frank Yaker? They manage to bring Height’s compositions to full pale bloom each and every time, not to mention the revolving vocal chorus of Gavin Riley, Jen Rice, King Rhythm and Emily Slaughter.

The last two tracks, “Oswego Speedway” and “Moscow” are more observational, the vibe being more contented and happy with the state of things than tired in the bones. A secret track speaks of ten thousand steps but does so with a buoyancy, as if looking towards the future with renewed optimism despite the passing of a wise elder.

It is not easy to be ahead of your time. Height does not seem to care about that, doing his thing his way, continuing to push forward, bloodied but unbowed. Based on his report from the front lines, the heart of Rock and Roll is still beating.

Height with Friends will be playing an album release show at Floristree on Friday, August 10th with Co La, AK Slaughter, Cakra Con (Katrina Ford of Celebration solo), Which Magic, and DJ Secret Weapon Dave in support. Doors will be at 9PM. Five dollar donation.

Audio Reviews : Supine/Spellbound by So Much Light, 31 Jul 2012 20:14:29 -0400

As an habitual consumer and inveterate critic of popular culture—particularly of music—there’s a question that troubles me from time to time.

Specifically: “What is the purpose of formal pop-cultural criticism?”

By which I mean: “Why write about music, movies, books, TV shows, etc.?”

With the corollary: “To and for whom is such criticism written?”

It’s a loaded line of self-questioning, one which cuts right to the heart of the whole pop-critical endeavour. Professional music journalism and film criticism à la Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Roger Ebert; TV blogs ad nauseam; New York Times book reviews and bestseller lists—the whole analytical shebang. What’s the point of it all?

For my own part, I prefer to think of formal pop-cultural criticism (as opposed to the intensely comparative, historical, and minutiae-obsessed brand of academic theses and dissertations) and its attendant value judgments and implicit mercantile recommendations as a byproduct of compulsive pathos. That is: a need to share with all and sundry which extends beyond in-the-moment social media status blurbs and flash-form tweets. Hence the sometimes-coherent jumble of opinions filtered through personal experiences and presented as reasoned arguments—a medley of considered explanations for subjective reactions to sensory and cognitive stimuli, provided in hopes of engendering similar responses within others.

Simply put: “Here’s a thing that I like/dislike; here’s why I like/dislike it; here’s why I think that you would like/dislike it, too.”

The objective, then, is less to provide an impossibly impersonal and objective pro/con critique or to craft a thinly-disguised buyers’ guide to the Next Big Things than to use a creative work as a means by which to examine an idea—to explore and explain the perceived significance(s) contained within a given album, book, film, television serial, or what have you.

Accordingly, the role of the pop-critic is that of adept surrogate and hyper-aware proxy. Artist-authors want their work to be entertaining, poignant, and relatable; critics help to explain how it is or isn’t so, mainly by putting the work in context and pointing out subtle details which might otherwise go unnoticed. In doing so, the critic is writing not only to an audience comprised of fellow listeners/readers/viewers/experiencers, but also to the work in question, and to the artist-author thereof. It’s a matter of deconstruction and reconstruction, of picking apart and putting together, extracting and evaluating, interpreting and intuiting, commiserating and reciprocating. In the best of cases, it’s less an authoritarian appraisal than a conversation between equals, one which proves enlightening, cathartic, and constructive to critic, reader, and author-artist alike.

Which, without (much) further ado, leads me to the impetus for this whole “intended purpose and audience of pop-cultural criticism” spiel: an email from one Damien Verrett—who, in addition to his role as the lead singer and guitarist of the Sacramentan math-pop/rock quartet The Speed of Sound in Seawater (reviews available here and here) and as producer/vocalist in the digitally-affected pop duo Mansion Closets, has also begun penning and performing solo compositions under the moniker So Much Light.

Principally, the aforementioned email was designed to announce and promote the impending August release of So Much Light’s debut full-length, Supine/Spellbound, and was fairly generic in that regard. Release date, production details, promo link, etc.—the significance of the email lay not in what it contained, but what it left out.

Contrary to common practice, Verrett wasn’t spamming scores of music bloggers with an electronic press kit for his new musical endeavour, nor explicitly requesting a quotable review from an authoritative tastemaker (as many critics might view themselves to be). Rather, he was asking for another set of ears. Less “Hi! Could you post an article about my new album?” than “I made a thing! Could you give a listen and let me know what you think?”

Granted, I could be mistaking good manners and reflexive humility for something far more significant—critics do tend to read into things overmuch—but that lone gesture was enough to inspire the above (perhaps overlong) rumination on why we critics do what we do, so there might very well be something to it.

Either way, album review: do let’s.

Recorded in three separate cities, produced and mixed by Robert Cheek, mastered by Doug Van Sloun, and boasting orchestral arrangements by Town Hall’s Jesse Kranzler, Supine/Spellbound is a remarkably well-made for a solo debut from a relatively young musician. Instrumentally, So Much Light’s melodic core of fleet-fingered acoustic guitar heroics borrows more from the folk-tinged confessionals of Owen’s Mike Kinsella than the heady dueling riffs of Tera Melos. Likewise, the relatively laid-back contributions from A Lot Like Birds’ rhythm section (bassist Michael Littlefield and drummer Joseph Arrington), combined with the aforementioned arrangements by Kranzler, skew more towards languid chamber pop than frenzied math rock—as well as make the whole thing feel like a solo effort in name only.

But I digress. Semantics and presentational differences aside, Verrett’s lyrics still hew fairly close to the hopeless-romantic musings of his earlier work with The Speed of Sound in Seawater, including the regular appearance of modernized mythologies and extraordinary goings-on. Haunted ruins? Temporal anomalies? Vampire hunters? Demonic tomes? Check, check, check, and check.

Just so: the wink-and-nod meditation on horror-movie romance in “Abandoned Hospital Island” sets Supine/Spellbound off at a strong and steady pace. Impelled by arrestingly intricate acoustic riffs and runs woven around and through understated percussion and bass, Verrett recounts a Hallowe’en ghost-hunting date gone eerily awry, his character’s initial attempts at puffed-chest bravado and flirtatious gallantry eventually proving about as effective and reassuring as a half-gone match in a dark and drafty hallway—particularly once the sought-after spirit decides to make itself (and its unholy intentions) known.

Essentially a modern riff on the Judgment of Paris, “Coarse Gold Girls” applies its elaborate acoustic guitar and reserved kitwork to overactive hormones, inconstant hearts, and ill-fated romantic pursuits, the proud Hellenic deities and all-baring contest of the original myth replaced by comely passers-by and private heartache on the part of Verrett’s retiring narrator. Next up, “That Hollow Home” comes down with an even heavier case of sad-sack whinging, its slick guitar and subdued rhythms set front and center for an ennui-ridden rumination on the inevitability of physical decay and the relativistic pointlessness of willful inertia, a dour load eventually lightened by Kranzler’s buoyant string arrangement in the outgoing chorus. Such orchestral accents perform a similarly effervescent function in “90’s High School Party”, their pleasantly drawn notes providing a soft and uplifting counterpoint to Verrett’s pointed guitar and maudlin-to-macabre tale of post-teenaged obscurity and unrequited affections.

Listing heavily to short-and-straightforward pop-and-rock, “Firecracker Kid (Tonight at the Bronze)”—yes, dear readers, that is a titular allusion to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer—finds Verrett once again pitching woo at yet another fictionally-framed femme fatale (SEE ALSO: werewolves, manticores, sphinxes, etc.), his steady strums initially matched by propulsive percussion and eventually settling into light finger-picking for an ominous, vocally-doubled chorus.

Sticking with the eerie and otherworldly, “Goblin Scrawl” offers an unsettling, baroque-inflected warning about an infamous book of spells, Kranzler’s vibrato- and pizzicato-heavy orchestrations dancing about Verrett’s airy admonitions and repetitious finger-picking.

Cutting back to upbeat pop—and, oddly enough, to plain-vanilla reality—“Jared’s Going to Love This” plays out like a musical birthday card, Verrett’s sunny lilt and looped-and-layered guitar corresponding with equally peppy percussion, Rhodes synth, and a rousing crowd chorus. It’s more than a bit saccharine and twee, but it’s easy to imagine that it brought a pleasantly embarrassed smile to its intended recipient.

“Chiarina” finds Verrett & co. returning to chamber pop form with a string adaptation of the eleventh of 19th century German composer Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, Op. 9 № 11. Lyrically, “Chiarina” seems to serve as a nod to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—rather, to the Karloff-led filmic adaptations thereof, all mated monsters, stitches and sutures, and fatalistic angst.

Whereas The Speed of Sound in Seawater’s epically-entitled “Dinner and a Movie on a Post-Apocalyptic Earth: 12 Bottle Caps, Successfully Repopulating the Human Race: Priceless” (off the 2010 Red Version EP) treated the listener to a romantic tête-à-tête set against the irradiated backdrop of Bethesda Software’s Fallout 3, the cowpoke cadence and would-be pacifist pioneering heard in So Much Light’s “Hitching Post Bound” appears to take a page or two from Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption. As nerdy and fan-fictional as that may sound, it’s par for the course for Verrett’s slyly referential and casually reinventive songwriting. In both The Speed of Sound in Seawater and So Much Light, Verrett regularly finds his inspiration in extant mythologies, tweaking familiar set pieces and embodying established characters in order to vicariously explore and expand upon his own emotive experiences. Really, it’s a trick as old as storytelling itself, and one which Verrett routinely uses to great effect, harvesting a given narrative’s existing sympathies and seeding its fertile plotlines with bits and pieces of his own personal history. Granted, such offhand adaptations may not break new narrative ground, per se, but their meta-textual depth is doubtless an improvement on the non-specific confessionals and paper-thin anonymity of the standard pop balladeer.

Rounding out the album, “The Suburban Spellbound” puts both Verrett’s and Kranzler’s instrumental contributions on full display, their deftly mated pizzicato, arco, and low-lying winds eventually emboldened and accelerated by Littlefield and Arrington’s late-developing rhythms. Lyrically, “The Suburban Spellbound” acts as something of a summary-cum-thesis statement for Supine/Spellbound. Specifically, its self-aware blending of the magical and the mundane—of spell-casting and star-charting in the midst of a sleepy subdivision—echoes and exemplifies Verrett’s fascination with the interplay of the ordinary and the extraordinary. The operative lesson being that a hint of the supernatural can help the individual to better absorb and appreciate the nuances of a given personal narrative; moreover, that even the most fanciful of fictions is grown from a kernel of worldly matter, and can serve as a means to better understand its essential substance, its underlying significance.

That’s what fiction does; it’s why we read and write such tall tales in the first place. Like Verrett, we use others’ stories to tell our own, all the while looking for reflections and refractions of our own lives therein, the trappings of fiction keeping reality safely at arm’s length ‘til such time as we—or someone else—can make sense of it all.

Self-released on August 3, 2012, So Much Light's Supine/Spellbound is available for purchase via Bandcamp.

Features : Hip to the Groove #11: Mind the (Age) Gap by Tom Körp, 26 May 2012 22:43:54 -0400

It’s been said that music is “a game for the young”, a sentiment which I routinely dismissed in my own youth as little more than a spurious complaint of the old and out-of-touch. How, I wondered, could such an essential substance as music—be it rock, pop, folk, hip-hop, electronic, orchestral, choral, or what have you—ever fail to captivate, entertain, and enliven, regardless of one’s age? At what point in one’s life would (or could) music ever be considered anything other than absolutely vital? In the mind of a music-obsessed teenager, it seemed all but impossible.

Yet here I am: Tip-toeing towards thirty, and pretty damn-well apathetic towards modern popular music.

Only it’s not the fault of the music. It’s me.

Mind you, my previous interpretation of music being “for the young” was caught up in the idea of a hard-line demarcation between Youth and Old Age, a vaguely identified point—say, thirty-five years, or the birth of one’s second child, whichever comes first—past which the fiery life’s-blood passion for music would inevitably cool to little more than a passing fancy. A fittingly naïve reading, that. After all, what do the young know of growing old, let alone of the needs and tendencies of their own future selves?

What indeed.

In truth, there seems to be quite a bit more nuance and subtext to the aforementioned adage—and far more truth than I first allowed. No, it’s not a geezerly condemnation of music as a childish distraction, nor is it a dire prediction that the accumulation of years and workaday concerns will somehow revoke one’s license to bask in the musical zeitgeist, or to be a contributor thereto. Hardly.

The desire to create and enjoy music does not by necessity decline as one grows old(er)—here’s to you, public radio “adult contemporary” programming!—it’s just that popular music, by and large, is made by and for the young, and is thusly prepossessed with exaggerated anthems and hyper-romanticized ballads—the ideals and idylls of the so-called Young Invincibles—which, perhaps, fail to resonate with those who have actually been there and already done that, and who likely have a closer relationship with reality than the chord-busting tunes and knob-tweaking dance offerings of teens and twenty-somethings who are just now dipping their toes into that wide and turbulent river of life and reporting their early findings to an audience comprised mainly of their equally inexperienced and exaggeration-prone peers. The young-un’s are in the thick of it together, while the old guard, if I might be so bold as to count myself among their ranks, is merely hanging out on the fringes, stone-faced and cross-armed, equally bemused and befuddled by such guileless, solipsistic revelry. And, perhaps, a little bit jealous. À la Nick Miller of “New Girl”: “They don’t know what ‘Saved by the Bell’ is and they’ve never felt pain!”

In a sense, saying that music is meant for the young is a sideways admission of the inherent limitations of novelty: What seems grand and wondrous at first blush rarely retains its luster for long, and must needs continually give way to even grander and more wondrous things, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum et ultra. Ironically, this incessant need for newness and novelty in music (or in any form of entertainment, for that matter) is concomitant with an increasingly greater sense of sameness amongst long-term adherents, not to mention rampant burnout amongst practitioners, especially as they progress into their third decade of post-natal existence. Tellingly, what musical neophytes frequently hail as the “next big thing” may very well, to a more experienced ear, sound an awful lot like that “same old thing” from a few years back, only tragically bereft of the emotional-personal context which made it so grand and wonderful and worthy of creating and/or remembering the first time around.

Sure, in a few precious instances, one might find reasons and ways to preserve select high-quality tunes and their associatively-attached emotional contexts from the ravages of time, but it’s a relative rarity. Far more often, the listener’s love for an older song or album is rudely packed up and tucked away in the dusty recesses of memory ‘til such time as it is finally and unceremoniously trotted out to the proverbial dustbin of passive forgetfulness. The album or song itself might linger on in one’s collection or subconscious for the rest of one’s life, but the magic, the ardour and esteem in which it was once held, will be but a nostalgic shade of its former self, if it remains at all.

If such ho-humming disillusionment is bad news for the audience, just imagine what it must be like to be the singer-songwriters responsible for said tunes, expected to play them ad nauseam in venue after venue, year after year, worrying at the sentimental trappings ‘til they’ve worn completely away, leaving little more than a rote recitation of words and notes. Little wonder that the survival rate, as it were, amongst actively touring thirty-something bands is so grim.

I suppose, then, that this essay constitutes a sideways admission of my own: specifically, that my musical tastes have become fairly well-established, if not yet wholly calcified. By which I mean that, having spent the better part of a decade determining what I like—and, at the same time, developing the vocabulary to explain, in no(t quite) uncertain terms, why I believe it to be likeable in the first place—I’ve finally reached the point where I feel little-to-no need to expound upon, and proffer my unsolicited opinion of, any and every (chronologically if not compositionally) “new” musical offering as a matter of course, nor to actively seek out and burrow into new tunes for the sake of newness alone. For someone who has self-identified as a music critic for nearly a third of his life, being able to simply listen to and enjoy whatever comes my way, however it comes my way, without concerning myself with context or criticism is kind of a big deal. And a bit of a relief.

Not to worry, though! There’s still good music out there—as if you needed me to tell you that—and there’s still new music that speaks to me, prematurely aged curmudgeon that I am. Mind, I’m not so far gone that I find myself sitting in a rocking chair on my front porch, yelling at the dad-gomned neighbourhood kids to “turn down the Skillets”, but I’m certainly not in the oh-so-important and casually omnivorous 18-24 demographic anymore. No use pretending otherwise.

So, while I may not be handing in my rock-crit pen, I’m learning to accept my inevitable obsolescence as a pop-musical bellwether, and am finding that there’s no sense in feeling put out when my own musical tastes are not necessarily widely reflected in, or ratified by, the greater popular culture.

That’s just life. After all, we can’t all be young forever.