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.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


I used to think ambient music was mostly good as music for studying, falling asleep, making out, or coming down off of drugs.* I listened to some, especially Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 (which is disturbing enough to be a problematic soundtrack to studying, falling asleep, making out, or coming down off of drugs).

When I had a child, I all of a sudden needed ambient music in my life in a way I hadn't before. I needed quiet. I needed prettiness. I needed to not think, to shut out stimulus. I've come to appreciate the power of quiet.

I've gotten into Zen Buddhism and the idea of using meditation and quiet as an antidote to and a way to better understand our noisy lives. I won't go into a long spiritual/religious discourse here, but I think the little bit of meditation I've done over the past year and the extensive reading on Buddhism and Zen Buddhism especially I've done over the past four years has made a noticeable difference in my life. I try to sit every day but usually for ten minutes and never longer than fifteen. Still, I come to crave that time in the same way you come to crave exercise if you get into the practice of it. I crave that quiet.

I started meditating in earnest when I was going through a stressful period in life. Some challenges at work taking up a lot of my time and energy, and on top of that I had a one-year-old who was radically altering how I lived my life, related to the world, and saw myself.  I'd come home with so much spinning through my head that the only cure for it I could find was to sit quietly for a few minutes trying (unsuccessfully) to not think of anything.

Our world is so noisy. We are constantly taking information in. We rarely get a chance to reflect on what is real and true and what is just sound and fury. Meditating, for me, is a way to shut out all the noise and stop seeing myself through a filter of whatever bullshit has piled on that day/week/year/lifetime. It's a chance to experience life as it is for just a few minutes, without the constant stimulus.

In the same way, ambient music is sometimes a necessary salve for a chaotic and noisy life. I have several ambient albums that I listen to that provide some peace and solace and space to think. Where as a young person I'd listen to ambient to relax and chill out, as it were, in my middle age I'm listening to it to not think.

*Not that I know from experience, never having been one for any drug other than alcohol and coffee, but the proliferation of ambient "chillout" music coincided with the increased usage of ecstasy, cocaine, and other mind-altering substances in 90s electronic music culture.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Deep Thoughts on the new Kendrick and Record Store Day

Yesterday was Record Store Day. My daughter and I went to Down Home Music in El Cerrito to watch a bluegrass band. I didn't buy anything, although I have bought a few albums recently. I got the new Kendrick Lamar album, PM Dawn's first album (for a review), and a collection of Donald Byrd's albums from the late 50s and early 60s. My disc drive is shot, so I can't burn CDs anymore, which makes them less of an exciting purchase. I still like having physical copies of some stuff, and CDs are cheaper and smaller than vinyl.

I appreciate what Record Store Day is trying to do, but I dislike the jibber-jabber of it. I'm not interested in the gimmicky collector's items that only exist to separate you from your money. I don't need a pressing of Dilla's "Fuck the Police" in the shape of a cop badge.

But Kendrick's album seemed like the kind of thing I should own (even if the cover strikes me as being racist)(and by racist I mean anti-black). I love it, but dude, there are so many swears. Could he have not had every word be the n word? Maybe? No? Ok.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Deep Thoughts on Shoegaze

I love bands that have a shoegaze influence. Generally when people say "shoegaze," they mean atmospheric, heavily distorted guitar textures like those in My Bloody Valentine's classic 1990 album Loveless.

"Only Shallow" is a good encapsulation of their sound. There are heavy drums, swirling guitars, and all of it washed through layers of filters and effects. When people use the term "shoegaze" in reference to a band, it is that guitar sound that they are trying to describe.

I'm actually not much of a fan of most of the other bands that were affiliated with the first wave of shoegaze - Slowdive, Ride, Lush, Swervedriver, etc. I haven't listened to enough Swervedriver or Ride to make an informed opinion, but to my mind Slowdive and Lush were too slight and poppy. What made My Bloody Valentine exciting was the heaviness to the music. It hit hard and had a solid bottom. They expertly combined the pretty with the dissonant. Sonic Youth were obviously a big influence on My Bloody Valentine, especially on MBV's precursor to Loveless, Isn't Anything. Sonic Youth pioneered using guitars as textures vs. strictly for riffs and melodies.  In a lot of ways, it's an evolution of punk's reliance on distortion.

Loveless may have bankrupted MBV's label and broke up the band, but it has inspired generations of musicians. Immediately after its release bands from the Smashing Pumpkins to Superchunk incorporated the guitar textures of MBV into their music. As a generation of kids came up listening to that album, they started making music with those sounds as well.

One of my favorite shoegaze-influenced albums is ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead's Source Tags and Codes.

Deerhunter are another band use the wall of guitar to good effect:

Metal bands were influenced by MBV as well. Deftones' 2003 self-titled album has a huge shoegaze influence, which contributed to the pretty but formless shape of that album.

Fucked Up also combine the shoegaze guitar swirls and prettiness with the ugliness and brutality of Damien Abraham's vocals. The Chemistry of Common Life is one of my favorite albums of the this century, and it's largely the multi-guitar squall of songs like "Days of Last" that make it such a powerful album:

Tombs' early stuff aslo has a strong shoegaze influence, like "Gossamer."

There's a whole subgenre of black metal called "Blackgaze" which combines black metal and shoegaze. Most of what I've heard lumped in that category sucks, to be perfectly frank. There's a cheesiness that I've never associated with shoegaze in Alcest, say. Some of it is interesting. Blut Aus Nord have made several shoegaze-influenced albums. Those elements mix uncomfortably with the evil vocals and metallic guitars that are Blut Aus Nord's trademark, but it still works. Deafheaven are perhaps the most famous and successful band to combine black metal and shoegaze. Part of what makes a song like "Dream House" so powerful is its mix of swirling guitars, blast beats, and screeched vocals. It's heavy but pretty at the same time.

Bosse-de-Nage are another Bay Area metal band who have a heavy shoegaze influence. They just released their fourth album, called All Fours. I don't totally get why they are classified as being black metal; to me they sound like post-hardcore, something that might be on Ebullition circa 1998. Again, they have prettiness that tempers the ugliness and brutality of their vocals. They also seem to come from more of a punk perspective musically, at least in the tone of their guitars and the singer's voice. All of which makes for a sound that I really like. I've been listening to  "untitled" from their first album on repeat:

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

You’re Breaking My Heart: “One More Hour”

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

Break-ups suck. Every single break-up I’ve ever gone through has left massive scars, even though no one really did anything terrible to me like sleep with my best friend or whatever. In fact, I probably got what I had coming to me in most cases. Still, I was single for years because I couldn’t stand the thought of someone breaking my heart again. 

So imagine if you had just broke up with your girlfriend, and you had to play in a band with her every night? And imagine you wrote a song about how much the break-up sucked, and you had to sing it with her every night? Well, that’s what happened to Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney. Her and bandmate Carrie Brownstein dated, broke up, and wrote a gut-wrenching song about it that is one of their best.

The song captures the feeling of loss and squandered potential of a relationship that ends. That is what has always hurt the most when I’ve had a breakup - I felt like I was building something with someone and then it just goes to shit, and all the effort I’ve put into it was wasted. That and how much the pain lingers, even when you want all those emotions to go away. You’d think that someone telling you they are no longer into you would trigger your brain to stop being attracted to them, but no. So you end up with heartache AND longing. 

That comes through in the Tucker’s singing. The song starts with her spending on last hour in a room they shared, looking at her dresses and reminiscing. “Oh you’ve got the darkest eyes,” Tucker sings, still pining after the woman that broke her heart. Brownstein responds to her in the chorus. “I need this!” Tucker wails, while Brownstein responds, “I know it’s so hard for you to let it go/I know it is so hard for you to say goodbye/I know you just need a little more time.” 

The song ends with Tucker pleading “Don’t say another word/about the other girl.” It’s unclear whether it was Tucker or Brownstein who was unfaithful, but it is clear that Tucker did not want the relationship to end, and is having a hard time getting over it. “One More Hour” perfectly captures mess of emotions that comes with a broken heart, but without being whiney or self-pitying. It's angry, it's passionate, it's sad, it's nostalgic, and it's full of genuine emotion.

The songs is also notable because it is about a lesbian relationship, and their first no less. There are very few songs that I'm aware of that deal specifically with gay relationships, much less lesbian ones. There's a sense of betrayal in the song that I think is probably something you wouldn't necessarily hear from a woman complaining about a man who left her (or vice versa). Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I sense that the fact that it is one of her own (by which I mean a fellow woman, a fellow riot grrrl, a fellow bandmate) that is betraying her adds to the pain. You date a woman and then realize that they can fuck you over in just the same way any boy could.

Anyways, it is an amazing, heartbreaking song, and one that hasn't lost it's power to make me want to weep like a baby nearly 18 years later.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Earl Sweatshirt Review

Earl Sweatshirt
I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside
Columbia, 2015

Originally posted on RapReviews

Anyone who has spent a lot of time partying knows that, as much fun as it is, it is not a sustainable lifestyle. It can also be incredibly lonely. There are exceptions, but in general getting wasted with people isn't a path to lasting friendships. Drinking and drug buddies have a tendency to disappear when the booze and drugs are gone. There is also something incredibly depressing about living what is supposed to be the high life, and realizing how empty and unsatisfying it is. Ask 20-year-old rapper Earl Sweatshirt.

The success and hype that Earl has experienced since his Odd Future crew took off and his debut album Doris was released has weighed on him. He spent the last three years partying too hard and not taking care of himself physically or emotionally, losing fifty pounds from not eating. He got his heart broken by so-called friends and girlfriends. He documents his experiences and subsequent disillusionment on his latest album, I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside.

Despite it's depressing title and heavy subject matter, I Don't Like Shit is actually a more upbeat album than "Doris." Earl sounds more confident than on his previous release, even when he is rapping about the pitfalls of fame, his troubled upbringing, and his problems with women. The confidence shows in several ways. For one, there are less features on the album, as if Earl doesn't feel he needs to hide behind other MCs. Also, his rapping is more energized than on Doris. He doesn't sound like a bedridden depressive. On album opener "Huey," he even seems like he's having a good time:

"Critics pretend to get it and bitches just don't fuck with him
I spent the day drinking and missing my grandmother
Just grab a glass and pour some cold white wine in it
A Colt 45 in it, you know how I get it
I'm toasting myself and a toast to all my n----s
And there ain't no time limit, I'm toasted as hell
And I gotta jot it quick cause I can't focus so well"

"Good grief, I've been reaping what I sowed," Earl raps on "Grief." There's a lot of talk on this album about betrayal, and betrayal by women in particular. At times Earl approaches early Snoop levels of misogynistic paranoia. As he raps on "Off Top," "What's your motive, ho? I only trust a bitch as far as I can throw 'em." What makes Earl's women problems interesting is the level of genuine hurt he displays, and the fact that he owns that he is part of the problem. On "Mantra" he admits that to some level he's to blame for his relationship problems:

"You used to say you like violins and your lifestyle depend on me
And I know it's night time when you get lonely
And tell all your little friends how that b--h stole me
And despite all of the facts that you got phony
You gonna tell them about the night that you exposed me
For the bastard I was
And how I probably smashed every b--h that I passed in the club
And the last couple months was the worst
Cause I smashed all the trust
That I earned in the past couple months
That we had as a couple
My absence of fucks
Was a problem that we ain't ever really get to solve
We just smashed and we scuffled
Trying to keep it calm but I snap at you
Now you're taking all your property back and it's obvious that
That apart from the fact that we fuck and it's bomb
And I hate when you home
And when I'm gone I don't call cause you nag
Man, I brought you some shit
And I bought you some shit
What you offering here?
What the fuck you offering here?"

As on Doris, Earl deals with some heavy shit: his troubled upbringing, his strained relationship with his mother and grandmother, where he belongs both on earth and in hip-hop. On "Faucet" he raps:

"And I don't know who house to call home lately
I hope my phone break, let it ring
Toe to toe with the foes, new and old
Basic hoes try to cage him like the po'
When I run, don't chase me"

The album is produced by Earl as RandomBlackDude, whose beats lean more towards trippy than banging. There are big, echoing drums, hints of melody, and lots of space for Earl's raps. Some tracks go for light funk reminiscent of DOOM, while album highlight "Grief" sounds like it samples William Basinki's "Disintegration Loops." There is nothing on here that is going to be played at a club, but it is consistently interesting.

There are two negatives about I Don't Like Shit, only two of which Earl had much control over. For one thing, it's short, barely clocking in at 30 minutes. The upside is that it is tight and there is zero filler, but it feels a little incomplete. Secondly, his low-key style makes this a hard album to get really excited about. He's more energized here than on Doris, but it is still a downer of a record. Vince Staples guest spot on album closer "Wool" makes this all the more obvious. Staples has a charisma and punch that Earl lacks. That's not to knock Earl as a rapper, but he does make music that is best suited for a certain mood.

Even with those criticisms, this is an excellent album. Odd Future have always been much deeper than their deliberately offensive lyrics and Jackass antics let on. Underneath the sick senses of humor were kids dealing with some serious issues. I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside sees Earl continuing to mature and grow as an artist. It's nice to see him living up to the promise of his early releases, and making music that is so brutally honest.

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