Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Thoughts on Rape

A few high profile rapes have me thinking about how we deal with rape.

For one, pornstar James Deen was accused of rape via Twitter by his ex-girlfriend, porn actress Stoya. Several other porn actresses came out to share stories of being raped or almost raped by Deen, including on a Kink.com set. 

Some people came out with the defense that since Stoya is a porn actress, she can’t be raped. I think this is common in rape investigations - look into how promiscuous the woman is, as if her enjoying sex means that she can’t be raped. Saying someone who has sex for a living can’t be raped is like saying a boxer can’t be assaulted. There are set parameters in which a porn actor has sex. Consenting to be filmed fucking doesn’t mean you are consenting to all sex in the future. Ugh.

So there’s that. 

Then a guy in the UK got off on a rape charge by claiming he fell onto a sleeping (clothed) 18-year-old he took home from a nightclub and penetrated her. Which is physically impossible. And not a thing that happens. There are reasons why a man might be found innocent of rape, but when a woman accuses a man of rape, and there is evidence of his semen in her, and he admits to penetrating her, then which is more likely? That he raped her, or that he fell and the physically impossible happened? The fact that the jury wouldn’t believe the most likely situation and instead bought this cockamamie story is indicative of how desperate people are to not believe rape victims. 

Then there is the Jackie Fox case - she claims she was raped by their manager, in public, and none of her bandmates did anything to help her. Her bandmates, which includes Joan Jett, deny that it happened or that they knew about it. It is not hard to believe that the manager of the Runaways would rape them - I assumed he was at least psychologically abusing them. It’s a little more disconcerting that the other bandmates aren’t corroborating the story - is it because it was 40 years ago and they shut it out of their heads? or is Jackie’s memory of it flawed?  

Finally, I’ve been listening to Levianthan’s “Scar Sighted,” and read about how Jef Whitehead, who is Leviathan, was accused of raping and assaulting his ex-girlfriend. With a tattoo gun.He only ended up being convicted of assault, which he claims is bullshit, but all the metal blogs (and pitchfork) act like it is nbd and he probably didn’t do it because he elliptically denies it and didn’t get convicted. Black metal being black metal, even being a convicted neo nazi murderer isn’t enough to tarnish your image, so I guess raping a woman with a tattoo needle is small potatoes. Which is fucked, if you ask me. Just like it is fucked that R Kelly gets a pass for serially raping underage girls because he is rich enough and powerful enough to buy them off and they are poor and powerless enough to be coerced into silence. 

I'm embarrassed to admit I've been wary of assuming that a woman is always telling the truth when she accuses someone of rape. Maybe it is a psychological thing that we straight men feel like we’ve all done something kind of iffy, and wouldn’t want to be called out for it. Or maybe we all fear being railroaded with no way to protest our innocence. Women don’t lie about rape often, but it happens. I mean, people lie about having cancer. And there have been some high profile examples of false accusations. The Duke Lacrosse team, for one. Conor Oberst being accused of rape in the comments of a blog post. But even in the case of the virginia university student who apparently made up a story about being gang-raped at a frat, SOMETHING terrible happened to her, and there were multiple other stories of rapes on campus that the university has hushed up that were more quotidian and not salacious enough for the Rolling Stone reporter to pursue. Let me repeat that: there were a lot of other cases of rapes that got swept under the carpet that were too boring for the reporter to pursue, because rape is such a commonplace thing.

And not wanting to railroad people is a noble impulse, but then why are we railroading so many rape survivors into not being believed? Being falsely accused of making up a rape accusation is just as bad as being falsely accused of rape, if not worse. And while some small subset of people lie about being raped, the vast majority of rapists lie about being rapists. How many people have you heard admit they were rapists? Or to take another tack, how many people do you know that were falsely accused of rape? None, right? Or max, one, and it is most likely one of the five cases we all have heard of. Now how many women do you know who have been raped? Every single one of us knows several women who have been raped. I know of four, and that is just women who would talk about it with me, a guy. I'm sure there are many many others who don't want to discuss it with their guy friend. 

We often ask why women waited so long to come forward with their accusations. And then when they step forward with their accusations, we scrutinize their every move and motive, we disbelieve them, and if they take it to trial, their rapist gets off on the most bullshit of pretexts.

Bill Cosby hired 700 lawyers to defend himself from his rape allegations. 700.

So for the new year I’m switching my setting from being skeptical about a rape accusations until I get better evidence the woman is telling the truth to assuming the woman is telling the truth until I get better evidence that I should be skeptical. I am going to try to take to task those people I encounter in my life who are accused of rape, even if it is uncomfortable and means going agains the status quo and making a stink. We do so much harm in the name of not creating a stink sometimes. And I am going to try to be a better ally to rape survivors. That’s my new year’s resolution. Also known as stop being a dick.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Favorite Metal Albums of 2015

I listened to a lot of metal this year, so much that I can actually make a top ten list of my favorite albums.

One thing I’ll admit - most of this is “hipster metal.” Very little of it is about satan, or just old fashioned workmanlike black metal. There’s no death metal or power metal. As with all my listening tastes, I tend to like stuff that pushes boundaries, that takes genres in different directions. I’m not dissing the meat-and-potatoes metal that a lot of people love, it’s just not what excites me. I also have little interest in music that is trying really hard to be EVIL, because that’s not my scene.

This is also a list of albums I actually listened to and loved, not ones I merely thought were worthy of praise.

So here they are in alphabetical order:

Windhand: Grief's Infernal Flower. I enjoyed moments of their 2013 album Soma, but it was a little too muddy and formless. They've tightened up here and cleaned up the sound. So heavy, so good.

Vhol: Deeper Than the Sky. This is like Motorhead meets 80s Metallica meets I don't even know. It's great. It sounds amazing, it is heavy, precise, energetic, and fun.

Vanum: S/T. Melodic black metal that combines just the right amount of melody and noise.

Panopticon, Autumn Eternal. Epic, yearning, and powerful.

Myrkur: M. Folky Scandanavian black metal with female vocals.

Liturgy: The Ark Work. A hot mess, but an amazing hot mess. Black metal meets avant garde classical meets electronica meets southern hip-hop. Also amazing live.

Elder, Lore. Groovy prog metal.

Deafheaven: New Bermuda. Emo-ass black metal about the pain of normalcy, friends dying of overdoses, and moving to the suburbs.

Bosse-de-Nage: All Fours. Loud, melodic mix of black metal and post-hardcore.

Bell Witch: Four Phantoms. Heavy, slow, and beautiful.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

All That Jazz

One thing I am grateful for in 2015 is that I discovered contemporary jazz. Kamasi Washington got me realizing that there is indeed great jazz music out there.

I also bought a copy of Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, and while I don't know if I like the album, I love the audacity of it. I was wondering why there weren't more albums in that vein, and then I came across some of Rob Mazurek's work. He's a cornetist who has worked with the Sao Paolo Underground, and also does a bunch of stuff with other groups. Last year he released Return the Tides: Ascension Suite and Holy Ghost. It is four songs of trippy, sprawling, psychedelic jazz that is a tribute to his mother's passing. It's heavy and really interesting.

This year, he released the double album Galactic Parables Vol. 1. It is in the vein of Sun Ra, two discs of intergalactic jazz. His music is often kind of abrasive, but it is really interesting. It pushes boundaries and goes for something big. I'm a fan.

Life Is Shit

It has been a month. Terrorists attacks and assorted other bullshit. Goddamn.

Some day the world brings you down, you know.


In more upbeat news, I read the Dhammapada recently, and two quotes really stuck out:

“Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule."

"Conquer the angry one by not getting angry; conquer the wicked by goodness; conquer the stingy by generosity, and the liar by speaking the truth."

Life has always been shitty and hard. People have always had the capacity to be violent, shitty fuckwads. Our grandparents put up with shit we wouldn't believe. Their grandparents put up with stuff they wouldn't have believed. A hundred years ago women couldn't vote. 150 years ago blacks were slaves. It gets better, and we need to keep fighting to make it better, but it is never going to be perfect. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

And Now For Some Good News....

I tend to rant about the left and identity politics here, so I wanted to not rant about the left and identity politics. A couple pretty good things happened in the past week on that front.

Berkeley High students walked out after a racist message was found on a school computer. Maybe you are thinking, "hey, it was just a troll, what's the big deal, and who are they protesting against?" The message went beyond mere trolling, bordering on terrorism, and the students were a), finding a productive outlet for their hurt and outrage, b), letting the community know that the hatred and racism in the message did not have a place in their community and c, getting an excuse to leave school early. Nice work, Berkeley High students!


The President of the University of Missouri stepped down after criticism by students and the football team about how he had dealt with racist incidents on campus.

Slate has a timeline here: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/11/09/timeline_of_u_of_missouri_protests_and_president_resignation.html?wpisrc=obinsite

and some thoughts about how this could reverberate here:

It's heartening to see people, and especially young people taking a stand and standing up against racism. So there.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Steven Universe, or when progressives attack!

There was a case recently where someone who did fan art for Stephen Universe (which I guess is a cartoon, and I guess fan art is a thing? Who knew?) was harassed/bullied so much by people that she threatened suicide. What’s interesting about this is that the bullying was all done by around issues of identity politics. The artist was getting crap for being fat-shaming, or transphobic, or culturally appropriating asians, or white-washing. You can see examples in this article:

Here’s the thing - this was most likely a group of young people harassing another young person, and shouldn’t be taken as representative of how identity groups or social justice movements feel or behave writ large. But it does point to a road that progressives can go down if they aren’t careful. In fact, a lot of it is deriguer Tumblr-level social justice badgering. Tumblr being to progressive commenters what YouTube is to conservative ones.

I was skeptical of political correctness when I was in college in the 90s for some of the same reasons I am skeptical of it now. That doesn’t mean I am skeptical of minorities and marginalized groups deserving equal rights, respect, and a bigger voice in society. But the way it is often expressed, especially among college students and young people is often troubling to me, in a couple ways.

1. It becomes dogmatic, lazy thinking. It’s always worrying when you realize people are just parroting talking points they’ve heard someone else say. It can become dangerous when people adopt dogma that has come from someone else without fully understanding it, or perverting it in the process. This happens with religious dogma all the time (hence the people in the U.S. who are pro-gun and anti-poor are Conservative Christians, who follow a religious figure that explicitly ordered his followers to help the poor and forbid them from killing). 

2. It becomes about shaming other people and proving your righteousness by attacking others. This was how I experienced the PC movement in the 90s, for the large part. It was middle class white kids shaming other middle class white kids for using the wrong term to describe people, or for being impure in some other way. 

3. It very often is more cannibalistic and inward focused than focusing on actual racism and oppression. Related to number 2, when you spend most of your time attacking people for using the wrong term to describe a group, or for not sticking to the script, it’s hard to see how that moves the movement forward. There has been an obsession with language among progressive circles and in identity politics for the past thirty years, and it is hard to see what progress this has brought. It seems like we’d be better off doing less policing of language.

Anyways, those are my thoughts. In short, don’t be a dick to other people, and don’t wield your enlightenment and righteousness like a weapon. 

I Went to A Show: The Sword at Slims w/Kadaver and Them Witches

I've been to two shows in 2015, both metal shows. For comparison, in the 39 years of my life that preceded 2015, I went to 0 metal shows.

I'm not familiar with either The Sword, Germany's Kadaver, or the UK's Them Witches. I am familiar with Black Sabbath, however, and friends were going to it seemed like something to do. All three bands play some variation of psychedelic stoner metal: downtuned guitar, midtempo beats, and lots and lots of hair.

I'll make a confession - I was sick and tired and maybe a little drunk, so I don't totally remember the show 100%. It was mostly  a swirl of hair and guitars and hair and pounding drums. All three bands were enjoyable, but essentially playing different takes on the same song.

I got home at two am after a two-hour BART trek. Woke up at 6am feeling rough, slept til 8, and then was running around Northern California with my wife and kids all day. Parenting is not conducive to staying out until 2am carousing.

Friday, October 16, 2015

New Bermuda Review

New Bermuda

Deafheaven's 2013 album Sunbather managed to mix the intensity of black metal with shoegaze guitars and post-punk emotional heft. It earned them the love of Pitchfork, and the scorn of TRUE BLACK METAL fans. I hated it at first, but have grown to love it. What I liked best about the album wasn't the soft, atmospheric elements, but rather the way they used black metal elements (blast beats, screeched vocals, tremelo picking) to convey a range of non-evil emotions. Too much of black metal is obsessed with being dark and evil and scary, and it gets boring and annoying. Deafheaven used that sonic template to express feelings of longing, desperation, class angst, romantic yearning. 

So what do they do for their follow up, New Bermuda? They throw the shoegaze elements out the window for the most part, instead mixing elements of thrash into their mix. Some people have been let down by this, but to me it seems like one of the few real directions left to them. They could have made Sunbather Pt. 2, but they seemed to have said all they needed to on that album. They could have gone down the Wolves in the Thrown Room path and make something totally atmospheric and not metal at all. It's probably not a coincidence that in the wake of being accused of being false metal by purists, the group decided to show the haters just how metal they could be.

Not that the album doesn't have pretty parts. What makes Deafheaven, and New Bermuda, such a step above your average black metal album is the way they are able to incorporate a melodicism and prettiness into their songs, even with the screeched vocals and pounding drums. It's what makes their music so effective - they know when to be harsh, and that dynamics, changes in tempo, and some soft edges can make the music hit that much harder. 

In fact, I may like this album more than Sunbather because it is more consistent. There is less of the ambient filler, less interludes, less quiet parts. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Death by Icon Review

Death By Icon
Originally posted at RapReviews

Death By Icon are Chicago based MC Vic and MC/producer Ant, and L.A. based producer Dook. “HassaH,” their first proper full-length, is based on the concept of balance. This theme extends from the palindrome of the album title to the beats and lyrics. It’s a nice slab of indie rap that tries to balance polish with sincerity, indie rap with club rap.

“HassaH” sounds good. The production is several steps above the average self-released rap album. DBI combine folk, EDM, indie pop, and R&B with club rap. One song might have an acoustic guitar, while another might feature hissing hi-hats and snapping snares.

Things start off slow and sleepy. “Say Some” starts of with Ant freestyling for almost a minute before anything resembling a beat kicks in. When it does, it is a bombastic wash of synths with Pia Easley singing the hook. Based on that, I assumed I was in for some Chance the Rapper type weirdness, but things take a 180 turn on the second track, “Sunderday,” which is built around booming drums.

“Dafoe” is a mid-tempo track grounded in icy synths, while “Gusto” is pure club rap, with Vic and Ant spitting rapid-fire verses imaging where they’ll be in 10 years:

“We toured the globe 'round twenty times
Four albums out and went diamond
Producing for
Whoever want
Whatever want
And still grinding
Till Vic get bored
Then start to paint
Doing art exhibits on his island
While Dookie chill
Producing still
A couple joints off Blueprint 12
Revive careers like Blu Cantrell’s”

Occasionally the juxtaposition of indie elements with club elements is jarring. In general, I liked the more indie-oriented songs like “Namesake” more than the club-oriented tracks like “Trsssnme.” They were more unique sounding, and more emotionally complex. “Trsssnme” sounds like a million other songs on the radio, although its interesting to here that style of song without the lyrics about partying and material goods.

Lyrically, Vic and Ant rap about keeping it positive, girlfriend drama, the struggles of being an up-and-coming artist, and how they are about to blow up. They are both able rappers, often firing off rapid-fire rhymes full of intricate wordplay. Their lyrics are admirable for not falling into the familiar rap cliches, but there also wasn’t a lot that stood out to me. I listened to this album about fifteen times, and there weren’t that many lines that really stuck out.

“HassaH” doesn’t always succeed in balancing its disparate influences and styles, but it succeeds more often than not. Death By Icon have an interesting sound, and even if they didn’t always deliver on their promise, they’ve made an album worth checking out.

Tyler the Creator Review

Tyler the Creator
Cherry Bomb

Tyler the Creator was recently refused a visa to the UK for 3-5 years because of the homophobic slurs and sexual violence in lyrics from “Bastard” and “Goblin.” According to a letter the Home Office sent The Quietus, “Coming to the UK is a privilege, and we expect those who come here to respect our shared values. The Home Secretary has the power to exclude an individual if she considers that his or her presence in the UK is not conducive to the public good or if their exclusion is justified on public policy grounds.” This follows a few months after Tyler cancelled a tour in Australia after his lyrics and antics caused him visa issues, and a few years after New Zealand denied Tyler entry for similar reasons.

Tyler joins Louis Farrakhan, Pamela Geller, the Westboro Baptist church, and others who the UK has decided didn’t deserve to entry into the country due to their inflammatory views. It’s a little odd that Tyler ended up on the same list of religious and political figures famous for their anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-gay messages. Tyler isn’t a preacher or a politician. He’s not taking out bus ads denouncing Islam, picketing funerals holding up anti-gay signs, or blaming the Jews for 9/11 during sermons.  He’s a musician, albeit one with an offensive and nihilistic persona. 

It is troubling that an artist is being refused entry into a country based on the lyrics to some of their songs, and perplexing that Tyler the Creator is being picked out ahead of the multitude of artists who sing or rap about offensive things. Noisey pointed out that neo-Nazi band Satanic Warmaster were given a visa to play in the UK this year. Their songs include nods to the Final Solution and the Third Reich. Countless rappers who rap about killing people and committing crimes in their lyrics have been given visas. Did the Home Office allow them to come in because they understood that hip-hop lyrics aren’t meant to be taken at face value, or did they not care so long as the rappers kept it to black-on-black violence?

I won’t disagree that Tyler’s lyrics, especially from his first two albums, were often shockingly misogynistic and full of homophobic slurs. I’m not even going to try to defend them. I was in the minority of hip-hop fans that found his schtick reprehensible. However, using “faggot” and “bitch” as a slur doesn’t necessarily mean that Tyler is actually either homophobic or misogynistic. Syd the Kid, his label and tourmate, is one of the few openly gay women in hip-hop. Not that having gay/black/female friends inoculates you from being a bigot or acting in bigoted ways, but I guarantee that openly gay people are not a common feature in most rappers’ entourage. By the same token, both Tyler and his fellow OF crew have moved further and further away from their early shock rap leanings with each subsequent release. 

Maybe the Home Office should listen to “Cherry Bomb,” Tyler’s latest album. (Is it intentional irony or coincidence that his album shares a name with a song by the Runaways, the all-female, partially queer, proto-feminist 70s hard rock band that endured its own share of misogyny and rape?). Tyler continues on the trajectory he started on “Wolf,” moving away from pure nihilistic temper tantrums into lyrics that border on introspective and beats that border on soulful. Part of my issue with Tyler’s early work, lyrics aside, was how dreary it was. Being DARK and DISTURBING all the time doesn’t always make for great music. Tyler is still dark and disturbing on “Cherry Bomb,” but he is also maturing as an artist and a lyricist. 

Well, maturing to an extent. The rape talk and violent misogyny are gone, as they have been since “Wolf,” but Tyler still throws the word “faggot” around like a middle-schooler from the 1980s. Not because he seems to have any special animosity for gays; at this point I think he just enjoys pissing people off. Too bad he has to pick on a minority group that already gets all the shit it needs from society without Tyler piling on. What’s next, fat jokes? Making fun of developmentally disabled people? He even addresses this on “Buffalo,”

“Fuck them crackers up at Mountain Dew them n****s is racist
Cabbage was made, critic faggots was shook
So I told them that I'll exchange the word faggot with book
And all them books is pissed off and had their page in a bunch
Fucking attitude switched just like a book when it struts
But I'm a fraud I pray to God when the six triple book bashing
While me and my favorite author's lips tickle”

Tyler addresses his New Zealand ban on “Smuckers” with his typical sensitivity and understanding:

“Like a HIV victim, ain't nobody fucking with me
I got banned from New Zealand
Whitey called me a demon
And a terrorist, goddammit, I couldn't believe in it
Ban a kid from a country
I never fall, never timber
But you fucked up as a parent
Your child’s idol is a n***er
I clearly don't give a fuck, so you could run that shit back”

“Cherry Bomb” is often an ugly, messy album. The production is frequently pushed so much into the red that it ends up blown out and distorted. The title track sounds like it is being played at full volume on a pair of shitty speakers. “Pilot” sounds like the beat was recorded live on an old synthesizer through a blown out PA. Even the raunchy slow-jam “Blow My Load” is full of distortion. It’s an aesthetic that is sometimes overused, as is Tyler’s affected gruff vocal style. It screams, “I don’t give a shit” so hard that you realize how much he actually does care about his image, his sound, and his whole persona. Yet when it works it works. What Tyler does on songs like “Buffalo” and “Pilot” is take an average hip-hop song and blow it apart. He approaches music with the same no fucks given attitude that he approaches life, disregarding rules and accepted behavior. This sometimes ends up a hot mess, but often produces results.

The messiness is contrasted with other moments on the album that are downright pretty. There is a jazz and R&B influence on “Cherry Bomb.” “Fucking Young/Perfect” even has an appearance by R&B crooner Charlie Wilson, of the Gap Band fame. Of course Tyler is unable of playing it straight. “Fucking Young” is a sincere love song...about dating an underage girl. 

Your results may vary with “Cherry Bomb” depending on how much you like Tyler in general and how much you hate your  parents and the popular kids at school. I’ve never found his persona intrinsically interesting (possibly because I’m not his target demographic), and it feels a little like he is spinning his wheels for at least part of this album. Blah blah, you don’t like anyone, blah blah, fuck everyone, we get it. It’s the same thing he’s been saying for years. That said, he continues some of the growth that began on “Wolf,” in which he almost expresses real feelings, and uses beats that are almost musical. He’s basically hip-hop’s version of a punk rocker starting to awkwardly grow up, trying to figure out if he has something to say beyond a sneer and three chords. I keep paying attention to him because there’s some mileage to be had in his antisocial pose, and he occasionally makes it clear that he is a smarter, more complicated artist than his constantly upturned middle fingers and ubiquitous use of slurs indicate. Or to put it more succinctly, Tyler is kind of an asshole, and his songs mostly sound the same, but it’s a pretty good sound and it seems like he’s starting to grow a little and become less of an asshole. At the end of the day, I enjoy “Cherry Bomb,” both for it’s misanthropic noise and for its funkier and jazzier sides. 

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Oregon, Charleston, et. al. et. at.

As of 10/1/15, we have had 274 days and 294 mass shootings in the US

(Source one: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/10/01/2015-274-days-294-mass-shootings-hundreds-dead/)

Source two :http://shootingtracker.com/wiki/Mass_Shootings_in_2015#cite_note-279).

This is because we are cowards. We are cowards because we believe that we are safer armed. We are cowards because we believe that our feelings about owning guns are more important than the feelings of those who have lost family members to gun-related murder or suicide We are cowards because we fight to be able to open carry so we can feel safe. We are cowards because we do not have the political willpower to pass meaningful laws that might actually help tide the flow of blood. We are cowards because we believe we are powerless to do anything about it. We are cowards.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Taylor and Ryan Adams

There's been a bunch of articles in the wake of Ryan Adam's cover album of Taylor Swift's 1989 about male indie artists and female pop artists and sexism and how we take mopey music more seriously. The Mary Sue sums it up and adds their own perspective. 

Let me say a few things.

#1. Taylor Swift is a good songwriter. I'm not a fan of her production, I think her lyrics and her poor little girl next door schtick aren't my bag, but I don't think she's a crappy songwriter. I think most of the critical establishment, even those who dislike her music, will give her that.
#2. Fuck sad sack male indie rockers. I listened to ten seconds of the Ryan Adams album. It's some boring shit. Fuck Travis covering "Baby One More Time." Fuck white folk singers covering gangster rap songs. Fuck it all to hell.
#3. Pop music is often fluffy, mass-produced shite. Sometimes it is appealing mass-produced shite, in the same way that I'll get a fast food soda when I'm in the mood. Especially if they have that machine that let's you make all sorts of crazy coke zero combinations. I'm all about it. Doesn't mean it's good for you or that there aren't better things to put in your body tho.
#4. Fuck critics. Taylor may not get critical acclaim (spoiler: she gets critical acclaim), but she also sells gajillions of albums, has billions of views for her videos, and millions of fans. If the mean old critics are mad at her for not sounding like the National, she can console herself in her mountains and mountains of money. Other spoiler alert: Middle aged men and millennial hipsters are not Taylor's target demo. If they don't find her album as pleasing as Max Richter's 8-hour symphony, whatever.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What's wrong with pop music production

I love "Shake It Off." I think it is catchy, fun, and the lyrics are lightly empowering. I'm an unironic fan. The only problem: I don't really like Taylor Swift's version. It's almost an amazing song, but the pop production fucks it all up. It's a poster child for all that is wrong with pop music these days.

#1. Robo-vocals. Swift's voice has the metallic twinge of auto-tune. This is standard pop production - singer can't sing? Who cares, we'll fix it in post-production! The problem is it creates an uncanny valley effect where it is oddly inhuman. It lacks the warmth of an actual, unadulterated voice. It's a little like how women will get implants and plastic surgery to look like some idealized version of femininity, when in fact they just end up looking like someone who has had plastic surgery.

#2. Too much is never enough. What sustains the song in the beginning is its relative simplicity. It's mostly a beat with robo-Taylor singing over it. But then they gotta add all sorts of shit to it - can we get some high notes? What about a rap in the middle?

#3. It's too perfect. This relates to #1, but it sounds too clean, too perfect. Real life isn't like that. Real life has pimples and imperfections and cracks. And these are good things. This is like a supermarket apple, waxed to an artificial shine until it is flavorless.

Compare it to the Screaming Female's cover:

Like all things mass-produced, the Taylor Swift version loses a lot of its heart and soul in the over-production. It's like a Chef Boyardee of music. AKA not my thing.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Captain of None

Colleen's 2013 album The Weighing of the Heart is one of my favorite releases of recent years. I finally got around to listening to her latest album, Captain of None. I was originally put off by the noisier direction of some of the songs, but it still maintains the beautifully hypnotic quality of her earlier work. highly recommended.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Ego Death

Originally posted on RapReviews
The Internet
Ego Death

By all indications, the Odd Future collective (AKA Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All) is no more. It’s not all that surprising since they haven’t really been appearing on one another’s albums for two years, and were never much of a group to begin with. The loose collection of artists, which included Earl Sweatshirt, Vic Mensa, Frank Ocean, Syd the Kid, and ringleader Tyler the Creator, were united more in their outsider status than because they shared an artistic vision. They were a group of musicians who didn’t quite fit into any world, so they made up one of their own. Their early work was intentionally shocking, a series of homophobic and misogynistic inside jokes that weren’t intended to be taken at face value. The irony was that two of their members were gay or bisexual, so even though Tyler and Earl filled their rhymes with homophobic slurs, the collective has done more to advance gay rights and gay visibility in hip-hop and R&B than any other rapper, with the possible exception of Macklemore. How’s that for a bunch of foul-mouthed kids?

“Ego Death” is the third record by The Internet, which features Syd the Kid and Matt Martians, along with Jameel Bruner, Patrick Page, Christopher A. Smith, and Steve Lacy. That is the first thing that sets The Internet apart from some of their musical peers: they are a band, rather than a vocalist working with other producers or doing the bulk of production themselves. As such, there is a cohesiveness to “Ego Death” that you don’t always get in contemporary R&B. Syd may do almost all of the singing here (minus a few guest spots, notably Janelle Monae), but it is a group effort. Like the rest of the Odd Future crew, The Internet has done a good job of transforming from a group of kids making music for one another to actual artists with something to say. “Ego Death” is their best record yet.

Musically, The Internet mixes R&B, soul, hip-hop, and jazz, with an emphasis on smooth and sleepy grooves. Some songs, like “Under Control,” feature an analog sound, with live drum, guitars, bass, and keyboards. Others, like “Just Sayin/I Tried” have heavier hip-hop beat, while a song like ‘Girl” could almost be chillwave. The one constant is that things stay subdued and mellow. There are no bangers on this one, no tracks for the clubs, no attempts at a Top-10 hit. The downside is that the album can sound samey at parts. The upside is that it is consistently good and doesn’t drastically jump around to different styles or tempos.

Lyrically, Syd sings about what she’s been singing about since her 2011 debut, and what R&B singers have been singing about since the genre was invented: love, sex, partying, and annoying ex’s. The difference is that all of Syd’s lovers share the same pronoun as her. Her lesbianism is front and center in the album, but it is also no big thing. She dates women, so the people she is chasing after or trying to dump in her songs are all women. I’m mentioning it in this review only because it is notable, but it is notable only because it rarely happens in popular music. I think someone could make a powerful R&B album about being a gay woman of color, but that’s not Syd’s goal. She’s making music about her life, and not spending too much time dwelling on anything heavier than ex girlfriends.

“Penthouse Cloud” stands out on the album in its naked emotion and direct engagement with racism. For most of “Ego Death,” Syd maintains a pose of cool detachment. When she’s telling someone she’s about to blow up on “Under Control” or telling a lover “You fucked up” on “Just Saying/I Tried,” she sounds like she could take it or leave it. On “Penthouse Cloud,” she lets that facade drop and sings about how heartbreaking the world can be. 

“Did you see the news last night?
They shot another one down
Does it even matter why?
Or is it all for nothing?

Father, oh Lord in heaven, is this how you saw it?
When you made your creation, is this what you wanted?”

People often complain that the lyrics in hip-hop and R&B are too hedonistic, too focused on sex and partying. “Penthouse Cloud” is the reason why there are so many songs about getting high and partying: because real life is too depressing. 

“Rather watch the world burn down from a penthouse cloud, real talk
But if this is what you want I’ll fight ’til the smoke-filled skies make the days turn night, then what?
Maybe when the world burns down and the clouds turns black and the sky turns white and the days turn night
It’s a war outside
Or maybe we’ll find paradise in the sky
When we die”

“Ego Death” is the perfect summer record. Breezy, smooth, lazy, and meant for warm nights. The Internet have developed into a full-fledged band, and Syd’s singing and songwriting have matured as well. Odd Future may be no more, but if its former members keeping turning out material like this, I don’t think we’ll miss the demise of the Wolfpack.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

What I've Been Listening to

I've been enjoying VHOL's 2012 self-titled album. They are a psychedelic thrash band that features the singer from YOB and a bassist from Hammers of Misfortune who also teaches music at my alma mater.

...and Vince Staples' video for "Norf Norf," which shouts out my wife's high school.

...and Joanna Gruesome's "Peanut Butter," which improves on their debut. Melodic punk with female vocals that is the perfect mix of pretty and noisy.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

At Long Last A$AP Review

I reviewed A$AP Rocky's At.Long.Last.A$AP at RapReviews.

I'm enjoying Vince Staples album Summertime 06, although it's a little short of being great.

I'm also loving the video for Kendrick's "Alright."

I really think that we are in the midst of a flourishing of African-American art, the likes of which hasn't been seen for years.

I've also been listening to Judas Priest a lot lately. I love them, both ironically and unironically.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Malcolm's Theme

From Ossie Davis's eulogy for Malcolm X, 1965:

Thursday, June 25, 2015

What I'm Digging: Krieg and Inquisition

I've been listening to two bands a lot lately on my noisy commute to and from work.

Inquisition is a duo of Portland-based Columbians who play an interesting take on black metal. The singer has the same croaked vocals as Immortal's Abbath, and the lyrics are all about worshipping Satan. What I like about the band is the warped guitar sound he has. There's almost an experimental edge to them. So even though their politics suck (they have a Nazi-themed side project, their early albums were put out on a label that distributes racist metal, etc.)and they are Satan-worshippers, I still really like this. I think the fact that they are Columbian makes their shitty politics a bit easier to take.

So on to a band that aren't Nazi-flirting Satanists....Krieg. (Well, shit, except their name is German for "war").  I really enjoy their 2014 album Transient, which to me sounds like a hardcore record with growled vocals. It's brutal and pummeling and all in the red, and then there will be moments of melody. A really powerful, melancholy record.

I've also been listening to a lot of jazz, so it isn't all latently racist white dude rage music for me, fyi.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Kamasi Washington Review

Kamasi Washington
The Epic 
Brainfeeder, 2015

According to a 2014 Nielsen report, jazz is the least popular genre in America. Jazz made up just 1.4% of all albums sold in 2014, compared with 17% for hip-hop, 30% for rock, and 14% for pop. To put that in perspective, the 5.2 million jazz albums sold in the U.S. in 2014 is only a little more than the total sales of the “Frozen” soundtrack alone. To most people, jazz is background music that all sounds the same, music you might hear at a reception or cafe, but certainly wouldn’t pay to listen to. From my own perspective as a jazz fan who doesn’t listen to contemporary jazz, I think there are a few reasons for this. Jazz has struggled with finding a broader voice in the past twenty years. Unlike metal, another genre that has faded from mainstream favor, there isn’t a robust jazz underground. The jazz that is out there is either avant-garde noise, easy listening smooth jazz, or fiercely traditionalist. It hasn’t found a way to connect with younger audiences, or audiences beyond dedicated jazz heads. Music tastemaker Pitchfork covers experimental music, modern classical music, but almost no jazz. Myself, I am a huge jazz fan, but I almost never listen to anything contemporary. I have hundreds of jazz albums, but only two of them were recorded within the last thirty years. 

And yet jazz has the potential to speak to current audiences. People still have an appetite for instrumental music, as the success of EDM in recent years proves. People also have an appetite for music that challenges traditional song structures, whether it be in the form of composers like Max Richter, electronic artists like Oneohtrix Never, or extreme metal artists like Liturgy. There is also still an audience for music that swings and grooves, both from the jam band end of the spectrum and the funk and R&B end.

Enter Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down. They are a group of 10 L.A.-based jazz performers who all grew up together playing in high school. Many of them had parents or music teachers who were session musicians in funk and R&B bands, so grew up surrounded by music. I heard of Kamasi for the same reason most people heard of him: he played on Kendrick Lamar’s new album, and his album came out on Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label. (It’s no coincidence that Kamasi is co-signed by Flying Lotus; “You’re Dead!” was basically a jazz album).  From that background, I was expecting “The Epic” to have a heavy hip-hop or electronica influence. It doesn’t. What it does have is a scope and power that is beyond almost any jazz album I’ve heard since John Coltrane’s later work or MIles Davis’s fusion albums in the 70s. In short, it is one of the best jazz albums I’ve ever heard.

The music on “Epic” was recorded in December 2011. Kamasi and the other musicians did a month of recording sessions, focusing on different band leaders, which resulted in 190 songs. 45 of these were Kamasi’s, which he in turn pared down to the 17 that appear on the three-disc and aptly named “The Epic.” This is a long, intense album. Many of the songs are over ten minutes long, and none of them are under six minutes. The band excels at building to climactic crescendos, and the longer songs often have multiple builds and releases. It is a dense, layered album. There’s a 32-piece orchestra. There’s a choir. Vocalist Patrice Quinn sings on several songs. It’s a huge album, and a lot of music to try to digest at once. 

Musically, “The Epic” has almost nothing to do with electronica or hip-hop, and a lot to do with funk, 70s jazz fusion, and late 60s jazz by the likes of Pharoah Sanders. It has the audacity and grandness of jazz at the turn of the 70s, when Miles was doing “Bitches Brew” and 30-minute long songs about the nature of the universe were de rigeur, only without the acid-damaged sloppiness of that period. “The Epic” is long, but it is also focused. It rarely devolves into noise, although Kamasi’s tenor saxophone occasionally screeches or squawks during solos. There is a strong melodic imprint throughout the album, and even at its most chaotic it never goes into free jazz territory. It’s at times reminiscent of John Coltrane’s “Ascension” only in its unrelenting intensity.  

Kamasi has played with Chaka Khan and Raphael Saadiq, and there is a heavy funk and R&B swing to “The Epic.” This grounds the album and makes it more accessible for a non-jazz audience, while still being jazz. “The Epic” is funky, it’s groovy, and it has a solid rhythm section. There’s a rock aggression to to the drums, although they maintain the swing of jazz. There’s also a playfulness to the music that makes it constantly inviting. “The Epic” is in many ways a protest album, but it maintains a sense of joy and hope that keeps the listener rooting for it.  “Leroy and Lanisha,” for example, has a nice easy groove that is contrasted by Kamasi’s almost angry solos. “Re Run Home” has a latin feel, with some funky bass thrown in for good measure. Then they fall back into the nice easy swing of the standard “Cherokee.” 

The size of the album, while daunting, is also to its advantage. With two drummers, two bassists (including Thundercat), and a whole mess of other musicians and singers, “The Epic” has an incredibly full and rich sound. The band is under no pressure to truncate their solos, or trim down their ideas. Remarkably, there is very little fat or filler on the three discs. None of the songs feel like they could have been left off, and the songs don’t drag on, even when they are approaching the fourteen-minute mark. 

As I mentioned before, “The Epic” is to some extent a protest album. It feels part of a thematic, sonic, and aesthetic whole with D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” and Kendrick’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” from the references to 70s African-American culture to the black-and-white album covers. The music is often angry and sad, but always maintains a sense of hope and celebration. The few songs with lyrics on “The Epic” are celebratory. “Cherokee” is about a Native American warrior. “Henrietta Our Hero,” possibly about Henrietta Lacks, celebrates “our hero, shining fearless and bright.” “Malcom’s Theme” turns Ozzie Davis’s eulogy for Malcom X into a song, and ends it with a quote from Malcolm himself calling for religious and racial tolerance. On “The Rhythm Changes,” Quinn sings:

Our love, our beauty, our genius
Our work, our triumph, our glory
Won't worry what happened before me
I'm here”

What I love about “The Epic” is how successfully it builds on the history of jazz music while making it contemporary. It is an album that pushes boundaries and yet is always listenable and relatable, even at its most intricate and complex. It never feels too smooth, too noisy, too noodly, or too traditional. It takes chances and succeeds at every attempt. It’s a jazz album for people that think they don’t like jazz albums, and one that I hope will help revitalize the genre.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Thoughts on Charleston

9 people, all African-American, were murdered in a historic African-American church on Wednesday by a white supremacist trying to start a race war. The right and right-wing media seem to be bending over backward to leave race out of the equation. The killer is already being given the 'crazy weird kid' card.

Fuck that.

This wasn't the act of a crazy kid. This was us. We did this. By playing into tribalism, us vs. them bullshit thinking. By framing political arguments as "taking back our country." By pretending the 1st commandment has exceptions, and the 2nd amendment has none. By othering and demonizing the people we call our opponents. By ignoring racism. By ignoring discrimination. By looking away from our painful history. By constantly arguing that the only answer to gun violence is more guns. By being too cowardly to call the gun lobby on their shit. By being cowards. By not taking responsibility for our situations and our actions. By not learning from the hundreds of other mass murders that happened this year. By assuming the perps are lone wolves.

This is not a politically popular message, but there is no them, there is only us. Everything we do, we do to ourselves. We are inextricably interconnected, and all of our actions have an effect. The killer wasn't a weirdo or a lone wolf. He was one of us, who was following a script that was written for him, who was following the ideology of the right-wing to its logical conclusion.

I'd love to say that this will lead to something, but if 20 white children getting killed didn't do shit, then 9 blacks being killed will do even less. Because the right secretly agrees with at least part of the killers message, ie there is a them and they are taking our country and we (by which they mean white people) need to take it back.  We are already resorting to the same arguments, the same bad thinking, the same bullshit that got us where we are.

But I think something is changing. I think that things are getting so bad that maybe we will do something. I think america is like an addict, who has been sleeping in his own shit for years, and has woken up covered in shit for the hundredth time, and is starting to think that maybe he has a problem. Only half of his brain is saying that his problem is he isn't doing ENOUGH drugs, or the right drugs.

My thoughts and prayers are with those killed, and their families, and with the victims and families of the Muslim students killed earlier in the year, and the other hundreds of victims of senseless killings in this country every year.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Half Time

It’s June, so that means it is time to talk about my favorite albums of 2015 so far, in alphabetical order:

A$AP Rocky, At. Long. Last. A$AP.
Bell Witch, Four Phantoms
Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Joanna Gruesome, Peanut Butter
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
Liturgy, The Ark Work
Oddisee, The Good Fight
Salva, Peacemaker
Tree, Trap Genius
Kamasi Washington, Epic

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

P.M Dawn Review

P.M. Dawn,
Of the Heart, Of the Soul, and Of the Cross: The Utopian Experience
Island/Gee Street, 1990
Originally posted on RapReviews

For a time in the late eighties and early nineties, many people involved in hip-hop thought that the number one threat to the culture was hip-hop going pop. Hip-hop was first and foremost from the streets and for the streets, and the idea of a rapper trying appeal to (white) mainstream pop culture was deeply offensive to many people in hip-hop. The fear was that this vibrant culture, which represented the voice of young black America, would be co-opted, defanged, and watered down by the mainstream. White people were going to steal and mess up hip-hop just like they did jazz and rock n’ roll. 

As a result, rappers that had crossover success into the pop mainstream were scrutinized, ridiculed, and cast out of hip-hop by its gatekeepers. There was no regaining cred once you went pop. That’s part of the reason why Vanilla Ice is doing reality shows and robbing houses, and why MC Hammer hasn’t had a top 10 hit since parachute pants went out of style. Tribe Called Quest, 3rd Base, NWA, Ice Cube, and even the Beastie Boys called out rappers’ attempts to go pop in song. The best way to lose your cred as a rapper circa 1990 was to appear to be courting the mainstream. 

People took this seriously. Serious enough to fight over it, and not just on record. Ask Prince Be of psychedelic hip-hop group P.M. Dawn, who was punched by no less than the teacher himself, KRS-One. In an infamous event, KRS-One and his crew stormed the stage while P.M. Dawn were performing at the Sound Factory in New York in 1992, punched Prince Be and threw him off the stage. KRS-One was allegedly reacting to feeling disrespected by Prince Be in an interview, but to many hip-hop fans, it seemed like he was defending real hip-hop against interlopers. But did hip-hop need protection against P.M. Dawn? Were they a lame attempt at pop crossover, or a group trying to do their own thing that got unfairly targeted? At the time, I thought that KRS-One was being a bit of a bully coming after Be. Let’s revisit P.M. Dawn’s debut and see if history is on their side.

P.M. Dawn started in the late 80s by brothers Attrell and Jarrett Cordes, aka Prince Be and DJ Minutemix. They were signed to now-defunct British label Gee Street, home to other leftfield hip-hop acts like Stereo MCs, Jungle Brothers, and Gravediggaz. In some ways you can credit (or blame) De La Soul for P.M. Dawn’s success. “Of The Heart, Of the Soul, and Of the Cross: The Utopian Experience,” came out two years after De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising.” It feels inspired by “3 Feet High,” not only in De La Soul’s hippie vibe, but their use of nontraditional samples. De La Soul proved that rappers could work outside the confines of soul and funk. They sampled Steely Dan, Hall and Oates, and Johnny Cash, and turned those samples into solid rap songs.

P.M. Dawn took this one step further by sampling New Wavers Spandau Ballet’s ultra-white, ultra-wimpy ballad “True.” They flipped that sample into gold on “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” combining it with the drums from Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid In Full” to keep things hip-hop. The song was a #1 hit, helped  “The Utopian Experience” sell over 500,000 copies. 
As you can probably tell from its title, “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” was not your typical rap song. It took a psychedelic approach to hip-hop, turning what could have been a standard love rap into something weirder:

“A careless whisper from a careless man
A neutron dance for a neutron fan
Marionette strings are dangerous things
I thought of all the trouble they bring
An eye for an eye, a spy for a spy
Rubber bands expand in a frustrating sigh
Tell me that she's not dreaming
She's got an ace in the hole, it doesn't have meaning”

There’s another major influence on P.M. Dawn, beyond De La Soul and the Beatles’ during their Magic Mystery Tour period: the hip-house sound of Soul II Soul. P.M. Dawn used similar drums on their songs, and also combined R&B and dance music with hip-hop. A song like “Paper Doll” has as much in common with “Back to Life” as it does with anything De La was putting out. In fact, when I was looking for this album to review, I found it shelved in the R&B section of Amoeba Records  rather than the hip-hop section. It is just as much an R&B album as it is a rap album.

One of the selling points of P.M. Dawn when they came out was their new age hippie schtick; it certainly set them apart from any other rap group out in 1990. Just look at the video for “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss.” They are fully decked out in African-print t-shirts, headbands, John Lennon glasses, and have bracelets for days. They took the Afrocentrism of the Native Tongues crew and gave it a sixties twist. Even today, their sound and lyrics set them apart from most other hip-hop. 

While “The Utopian Experience” has psychedelic elements, P.M. Dawn weren’t eating mushrooms and dropping acid as much as they were new age mystics. As a result,  “The Utopian Experience” feels more new agey than trippy, and the lyrics are sometimes a little goofy. The album certainly isn’t as drug damaged as Redman’s “Dare Iz A Darkside,” or as trippy as Edan’s “Beauty and the Beat” or Quasimoto’s “The Further Adventures of Lord Quas.” On “Even After I Die,” Be is talking to God, with lines that are alternately deep and silly:

“The thought of You just reeks with divinity
A spark by my heart is the symbol of the Trinity
I can understand that the stakes are high
But I'd really like to know what I've done and why
I'm floating in a sea of doubt when it comes to that
It seems as though all of my thoughts are now acrobats
I am you, now that's a thought to renege
But in the thought that stops it seems to get big
I wonder why Father, why it is? What it is?
Because I am what I am, what gives?”

One of the legacies of “The Utopian Experience” is how it predicted hip-hop’s shift towards embracing R&B, embracing pretty production, and embracing psychedelics. Listening to the album today, it’s hard to imagine a rapper getting mad at how pop it is. Nowadays, even the toughest rappers sing their hooks and rap over pretty beats, A$AP Rocky is rapping about dropping acid, and there are multiple sub-genres of alternative hip-hop. 

That wasn’t true in 1991, when I first bought this album. I was looking for hip-hop that was less nihilistic than the West Coast gangsta rap that was all around me. At the time, I was excited by the idea of someone taking hip-hop in a different direction and making music that was more concerned with spiritual questions rather than macho posturing. As much as I wanted to love “The Utopian Experience” as a sixteen-year-old hip-hop fan, I had a hard time getting into it. Listening to it twenty-four years later, it holds up better than I remembered, although some of the problems I had with it at 16 still hold true.

For one thing, the lyrics aren’t always great. As I mentioned before, there is some goofiness to Be’s attempts at being deep and metaphysical. His drippy, “what is reality, man?” gets old, and his mystic pacifist vibe doesn’t make him the most engaging rapper.  Also, their attempts to mash up hip-hop, house, and R&B don’t always work. “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” and “Paper Doll” both sound really cheesy to my ears now, and their dance song “Shake” downright bad. It is also dated in the way that all old hip-hop is dated: Be has a 90s flow and Megamixx is using 90s tech to make 90s beats, all while wearing some serious 90s fashion and rapping about 90s things. The datedness works in its favor at times: “To Serenade A Rainbow” and “Reality Used to Be A Friend of Mine” reminded me of early De La Soul and “Comatose” sounds like an Ice Cube beat. If you are a fan of early 90s hip-hop production, there are some gems on “The Utopian Experience.”

Beyond the 90s production, what makes “The Utopian Experience” worth re-visiting (if you can find a copy - it’s out of print, possibly because of sampling issues) is the way in which Be and Megamixx pushed hip-hop out of its comfort zone. It was gutsy for Be and Megamixx to be as wimpy as they were on this album. It took courage to make a song that sampled a new wave ballad, or was built around a Beatles sample. They made music with none of the posturing, either lyrical or musical, that was the basis of most hip-hop in 1990. Be’s lyrics aren’t about bragging, cutting down sucker MCs, or partying. They are about talking to God, questioning the nature of reality, and talking about love in metaphysical terms. True, they were following on the heels of De La Soul, who had started the whole hippie rap thing (and just as quickly vehemently disowned it), but P.M. Dawn took it further than any other group. Even in 2015, most hip-hop is confined to themes of urban America. Very few artists use rap music to explore other realms of thought and realities the way P.M. Dawn attempted to. If anything, rap post-1990 became even more obsessed with “keeping it real,” even when that meant fantasies of violence and wealth that bore as little resemblance to day-to-day life as what Be was rapping about. 

Be’s altercation with KRS-One happened in 1992, a year after De La Soul disowned the D.A.I.S.Y. Age on “De La Soul Is Dead,” and a few months before Dr. Dre’s “Chronic” came out and changed the sound, subject matter, and coastal epicenter of hip-hop. P.M. Dawn’s 1993 follow-up “The Bliss Album…?” went gold, so neither “The Chronic” nor KRS-One’s public rebuking of them seemed to have hurt the duo’s prospects. The two albums they released after that failed to chart, and since then Be has had multiple strokes and amputations; his cousin Dr. G tours under the P.M. Dawn brand, but without either founding member. A quarter century later, “The Utopian Experience” doesn’t feel like a lame crossover grab, but rather an attempt to somewhere totally different with hip-hop. It’s unfortunate that so few artists followed the trail that P.M. Dawn made; hip-hop could use more weirdos and outcasts.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Georgia Anne Muldrow Review

I reviewed Georgia Anne Muldrow's latest at RapReviews this week.

Also, I love Noz's response on his Tumblin' Erb site to the question, why do you say hip-hop journalism is over? He is making some clear references to Pitchfork and their Chief Keef debacle. That explains why he doesn't write for them anymore. Noz writes:

"There’s no infrastructure for it. All of the old guard hip hop institutions have become tabloids or aggregation zombies. And yes you can go write about hip hop music at a fashion magazine or an “indie rock” website or maybe the culture vertical of a multinational corporation that also sells dishwashers and tiny confederate flag lapel pins. You can make $45 a week accumulating content there and theoretically do some good work before you burn out or the building burns down but you aren’t going to be a hip hop journalist exactly. At best you’ll be a tour guide. Your job will be to explain hip hop to readers whose interest in the subject runs no deeper than their desire to add a tab for Significant Rap Talking Points to their Cultural Investment Portfolio. Because of this the core hip hop audience will forever approach your work with a hint of skepticism (rightfully so). And every time you file an article you will have to cross your fingers and hope the sloppily reported wow aren’t rappers with guns cool video documentary that your bosses’ bosses just got a few young black men sent to jail behind doesn’t pop up as a related link.

Imo hip hop journalism is about being a voice and responsible advocate for the primary consumers and producers of hip hop music. It’s about contextualizing the culture for people who are of the culture or at least seriously invested in the culture. It means telling stories about entire communities and sometimes even about humans who aren’t famous recording artists/being groomed to become famous recording artists. As far as I can tell none of the publications that still have an audience and a budget for covering rap music are especially concerned with any of that."

I never fit his definition of hip-hop journalist - I've always been too far outside of the culture to pretend to accurately represent it. I've written as a fan but as an outsider. And to be clear, what I mean by that is that I am a middle-aged, middle-class white professional who writes about music made mostly by poor African-Americans (although also plenty of middle-class and wealthy African-American, as well as people of other races and other socio-economic backgrounds). I don't go to shows, I don't live this culture, I'm not involved in the making and performing of it.  I hope I make that clear in my writing. I try to respect the culture, and the people involved in it, and not represent myself as something I am not.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What I'm Digging: Windhand

I got Windhand's 2013 album Soma when it came out, listened to it, and then forgot about it. I almost deleted it from my iPod but figured it was a good commute album. Then I got into Bell Witch's album, and decided to revisit the doom metal I had. I came across this song, which I barely listened to in my initial spins on the album, no doubt because it takes a few minutes to build. But when it does, it has this gorgeous melody on the chorus, which combines perfectly with the wall of fuzz from the (4? 5? 10?) other guys in the band.

So yeah. I dig it. Here's a video of them playing it live in Bulgaria, of all places.
Two side notes: 1. So, the rhythm guitarists job is basically to bang his head and strum that one chord super loud for eight minutes? He's like the dude in Arcade Fire who bangs his head and hits a drum. Or Bez from Happy Mondays.
2. The singer has said that she can't eat before shows because they are so loud and heavy it makes her have to shit.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Oddisee Review

I reviewed Oddisee's The Good Fight at RapReviews. I'm a fan. Nice counter-programming to the standard mainstream bullshit.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What I'm Digging: Electronic Music

Maybe as a result of listening to mostly dark and heavy metal music for much of the past year, I've been listening to electronic music a lot recently. I feel like I needed some lightness in my life.

Ikonikia's 2013 album is a full of 80s-inspired beats. 

Fatima Al Qadiri makes the kind of music that they must have played at the noodle bars in Blade Runner.

Bonobo, whose "Cirrus" video I saw at a dance performance by Polibolus.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What I'm Digging: Bell Witch

Bell Witch are a Portland doom duo comprised of a bassist and drummer. They make heavy, glacial music that combines elements of doom, Pink Floyd, and ambient music. Their latest album, Four Phantoms (on the unstoppable Profound Lore label), is four long songs about spirits who have died violently. Two of the songs clock in at over 20 minutes. It is all about textures and atmospheres. It's at times brutal, and at times really beautiful. All at that agonizingly slow doom pace. I can't stop listening to it. Good stuff.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

I Went to A Show: Liturgy at the Chapel 5/1/15

I didn't go to a single show for the first two years of my daughter's life. I finally broke that spell in April by going to see Belle and Sebastian. Last night I went to my first heavy music show in years when I went to see Peacers, Liturgy, and Lightning Bolt at the Chapel in San Francisco.

I think the Peacers is fronted by the guy from Bay Area garage band Bare Wires. Either way, they were a sloppy garage/noise band whose songs seemed more like sketches or ideas than fully fleshed out songs. They weren't terrible but I wasn't a fan. They did make Liturgy seem all that more amazing, because Liturgy were the exact opposite. There was no scrappiness or sloppiness to them at all.

I really like their latest album The Ark Work, but it is a challenging record. It is synth-heavy, and Hunter Hunt-Hendrix's new hip-hop influenced moaned singing style doesn't always work. I wasn't sure how it would translate live, but it totally worked. They became more guitar-oriented, and since the synths were coming through Hunt-Hendrix's guitar, there was less cacophony than on the album. This allowed the epicness of the songs to shine. They operate as a whole, building to "Reign Array."

There was also a trance-like effect of their music. I went to the show with my brother-in-law, and both of us have young children and are up early. He mentioned that Liturgy was sort of putting him to sleep, even though they were really loud and heavy. Which isn't a sterling compliment, but it points to the drone-like elements of their music. It is similar to techno music in its abstraction, the way it builds, and the non-reliance on traditional song structure or singing to drive the songs.

Drummer Greg Fox is the key to the band. Hunt-Hendrix may write the songs and lyrics and own the concept of the band, but Fox is what keeps it going. He is by far the best drummer I have seen play. He plays fast, precise, and complicated patterns, almost all of which are some variation of a sixteenth note. The rest of the band were all strumming as fast as their wrists would allow, and it was up to Fox to create the shape of the songs. He was incredible, and a blast to watch and listen to.

The band was a little subdued, which may owe to the fact that they weren't headlining. They basically stood there, only occasionally banging their head. I think part of it was that there is so much technical precision required in their songs that they were busy trying not to fuck their parts up.

They closed with "Generations," off of their last album. The crowd finally snapped out of their stupor, and a little most pit started, although the kind of most pit that 30-something hipsters start. No one was in danger of breaking a limb or even their glasses.

Hearing Liturgy live really made The Ark Work make sense to me, and brought it to life. I don't totally understand Hunt-Hendrix's philosophy, and his moaning singing sometimes sounds weak and shitty, but I really admire what he is able to do and the force and vision behind their music.

We left before Lightning Bolt because I had a train home to catch, and the idea of getting an extra hour of sleep was more enticing than seeing a band I had never listened to. True to form my kid woke  up cranky and sad and I was very glad I wasn't hung over.

This are some clips of different live shows that gives some idea of what they are like:

Friday, May 01, 2015

You're Breaking My Heart: "Chalet Lines"

One of the most depressing things I've learned through the dysfunctional us vs. them political divide in the U.S. is even things we all should really agree on can be the source of intense debate. Like that torture is wrong. Or that rape is a bad thing and is a problem. A friend of mine and I had a joke a while back "I'm coming out against rape." The joke being that rape is such an obvious thing to be against it that it is hardly brave or even notable to take a public stand against it. That joke isn't so funny anymore. When the Democrats made rape on college campuses an issue, the right's response was "come on, it isn't REALLY an issue, and what was she wearing anyways? Wasn't she sort of asking for it?" (I don't think the issue has been handled brilliantly by the left, but when we can't agree that rape, as an act, is a thing to be against, we are fucked as a society.)

Which brings me to Belle and Sebastian's "Chalet Lines," from their 2000 album "Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant." The song is a harrowing tale told from the perspective of a woman who has recently been raped. It is a quiet song that conveys a range mixed emotions: despair, shame, depression and anger.

"He raped me in the chalet lines
I had just said no for the final time
Although it’s last month it’s like yesterday
I missed my time, I don’t think I could stand
To take the test, I’m feeling sick
Fuck this, I’ve felt like this for a week
I’d put a knife right into his eyes
My friend can’t see
She asks me why I don’t
Tell the law
Oh what’s the fucking point at all"

It kills me. Every single time I listen to it. Goddamn.

Friday, April 24, 2015

What I'm digging: Broken Water

Speaking of shoegaze, there is a newish band from Olympia that have a new take on the shoegaze sound, Broken Water. Or maybe not so new since they basically sound like they could have put this out in 1993. And the video totally reminds me of my days hanging out in SF and Sacramento in the mid-90s, being poor, playing music, going to shows, wearing thrift store clothes.......

Anyways, I'm into it.

You're Breaking My Heart: "Last Good Sleep"

You're Breaking My Heart highlights songs that make me want to cry.

I go through periods of feeling fed up with rap music. I feel like I am too old, too white, too straight to be listening to it. What the fuck does my life have to do kids bragging about getting wasted, having sex, partying, selling drugs, and/or shooting people?

And then I'll hear a song that reminds me what I love about the music in the first place, namely the way it gives a voice to populations that don't often have a voice, and the way it lends itself to more thorough examinations of issues. Rock songs can be meaningful too, but a rap song will often have two or three times the number of words per song - a rapper can say more than a singer.

Which brings me to "Last Good Sleep," the 1997 song by Company Flow. Company Flow were a Brooklyn trio who were basically trying to make hip-hop like EPMD in an era where rap was first trying to go pop in a big way. CoFlo were part of the true school revival of the late 90s, artists who wanted to make the kind of hip-hop that got them excited about the genre in the first place. Up to "Last Good Sleep," their songs had been your typical rap songs about being the baddest MC etc.  And then El-P decided to write a song about his abusive stepfather.

The song is told from his perspective, and describes the night his stepfather nearly beat his mother to death. The song describes El-P's feelings of guilt, horror, regret, and remorse at not doing more to stop the abuse. That is a heavy, heavy trip to lay on a little kid.

I cannot listen to this song without tearing up. It's one of the saddest songs I know, because it deals so honestly with pain.

He describes waking up and hearing them having the usual argument they had when the stepfather was drunk:

Timepiece must've read early morning at least
So I lay deaths cousin, woken by the sonics of the beast
That somewhere deep beneath me a fracture had seized at my neck
Breath was it, a flag that marked the end of my peace
Conference of the birds I heard my mother dove cry
Not absurd just routine I'd learned

Just keep my fucking grill locked and hope the entropy stops me process
Stepfathers got to fight verbally when his livers soaked
And products come in bottles stuck with drunken last nerve up too close
But I couldn't sense the distinction from the other nights livest wires
Ceremony's sparked again a dry one in comparison to this one
Handing crutches to my psyche, I was tripping
Huddled up clutching sis I think I heard a dress ripping

He then starts to second guess his inaction, reliving the moment and asking himself why he didn't step in when he realized how bad it was:

(I should've reacted to that)
But I didn't know the extent, please
(You could've caught him in time)
Yeah, that thoughts occurred to me constantly
Now I've been digging my head and I don't know what he wants
From me until one of us is dead I suppose
That's why at night I cover my ears in tears
The man downstairs must have had too many beers
Now every night of my life he beats his wife
(Until the day I die)

He goes on to talk about how he that was the last night he slept without having nightmares about the abuse:

And slept my last sleep while I counted clone sheep
And dreamt about nothing for the last time ever
The ignorance was blissful just a recollection
Of the gift of innocent times from a merciful deception
Woke to hazy landscapes to find my world
Defied the laws my mind mandates
Patching jugulars with Band-Aids
The turn on you laid well above my bed
Were here and only barely through the shock
Of what her broken face told me

Again, he excoriates himself for not doing more to stop the abuse:

(You should have known what happened)
I was young and oblivious, 
(he almost killed your mom)
If I knew I could have done something
(You'll never see him again)

And here is the fucking kicker:

Yeah, but I see him every night
And cover my ears in tears as he beats his fucking wife

I've never been in an abusive relationship, or had an abusive parent, but I can only imagine the pain and shame and sense of powerlessness. Hip-hop is all about bragging and boasting (including about beating up girlfriends, but that's another issue), so the fact that a hip-hop song would describe domestic abuse so clearly, and with so much vulnerableness, is truly remarkable. It's one of my favorite songs, and a song that always breaks my heart.

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