Monday, February 28, 2005

Fun & Games

I believe that pop music has a tremendous impact upon one's identity--it's sort of the point of this blog. It's probably a shallow, postmodern (ooo, there's a term that's long in the tooth!), consumerist impulse, this identity-through-consumption meme, but then we live in a shallow, postmodern, consumerist age. I listen to pop. That means, almost by definition, that I don't listen to:
Christina Aguilera, Bob Seger, Philip Glass, Fiona Apple, Miles Davis, The Postal Service, R. Kelly, Kansas, Alabama (or any other state, really), Cheetah, Charlotte Church, The Smiths (I know, I know. Tell me one more time and I'm gonna barf, I swear), Glenn Miller, Britney Spears, Steely Dan, Motley Crue, The Beastie Boys, Leontyne Price, and yes (brace yourselves) The Arcade Fire.

This is not to denigrate any of these artists. I quite like some of them, in moderation. But they're not me, not really. I never mind when people send me music, or ask me about it, because I know that an open and curious ear is part of the responsibility this blog has placed upon my head. I'm good with that. But I'm not, in fact, morally obligated to like everything. I try not to spend money on things I won't like, but beyond that, my ear is open.

Nevertheless, I wasn't quite ready for this. Popstrology purports to determine your identity based on the music that was popular in the year of your birth. Now, I should probably confess that I don't really believe in astrology, despite the fact that my birthday promises the world that I'm quite an entertaining person:
You are intensely emotional and strongly aware of the darker side of human nature. You don't live on the surface of life, but experience it at its deepest levels.

You possess an iron will, a strong ego and a unique personal magnetism. You make a loyal friend and a passionate lover.

You're also intuitive, ambitious and have a penetrating mind. You have a burning need to uncover what is hidden, whether it's a mystery or someone else's innermost secrets. You're rarely who you appear to be on the outside and are not easy to get to know.

Would that that were so! But no, despite my first mother-in-law's lament ("My son can't marry a Scorpio!"--though as it turned out she was right), I'm actually a fairly mellow person in most respects. (I'm similarly entertained by, but skeptical of, tarot and ouija. I sort of wish that they were real, but I've never seen anything to make me believe that, and I've looked, believe me.)

But popstrology seems a blunter object altogether. Maybe it's the by-the-year thing. Like Chinese astrology, I'm hesitant to believe that I have that much in common with those with whom I share a birth year (a hesitancy confirmed by my recent high school reunion. I was right, at 16: I have nothing in common with these people).

This isn't to say there's no wisdom in Popstrology. Consider:

Perhaps the roots of your chronic restlessness lie in the fact that you are an ABBA born in the Year of Debby Boone. Or perhaps the key to finally overcoming your crippling sexual inhibition is to acknowledge that you are a Pat Boone born in the Year of Elvis Presley. These and thousands of other possible lessons are to be found in the pop stars, and even popstrological novices can easily learn the tools necessary to reveal them.

or even better:
If you are an Olivia Newton-John who keeps on falling for Rod Stewarts, or if you are experiencing certain feelings that go along with being a Double George Michael, then the roots of your troubles may be straightforward and obvious. It is more likely, however, that the answer to your relationship issues will only be revealed through an analysis or your Birthstar's relationship to the forty-five constellations in the popstrological firmament.

This is getting to be way too much like math. ("Double George Michael" just means "gay," though, right?) But it's fun, and I encourage you, as a Johnny Rivers born in the third (and most thrilling of all) Year of the Beatles, to read yourselves.

For another fun time-waster, try this test, which determines the circle of hell into which you'll be cast, based on your sins and penchants. I, of course, am in the second circle, with the lustful. Paolo and Francesca, Helen of Troy, LJ, and me, are all going to have a hoot of a time getting drunk and talking about sex. I guess I shouldn't have answered "yes" to question 46: "Do you regularly check Sex Toyblogging at Raging PMS? Do you check back to see what other commenters have said?" Oops. Damn you, LJ! (shaking fist)

Thanks to refinnej for the heads up! Hope I wasn't too weird on the phone the other day; I was half asleep.

Saturday, February 26, 2005


Oh, dear god. As it turns out, My Dad the Rock Star is in fact available here in the good old U.S. of A.--it follows SpongeBob. I haven't had the intestinal fortitude to watch it yet, but my kid tells me, "It's okay."

And a student who reviews for Pitchfork has an advance copy of Robert Pollard's From a Compound Eye, of which he's allowed me to download about half. (Be clear, he would have given it all to me, but the connection was impossibly slow, so I only have about 8 tracks.) I'm not exactly a reviewer, as you guys know all too well, but it's good. Recognizably Pollardesque. I think we'll have to watch to see where Bob grows without GBV, but as he always seemed to approach his band and solo work as generally interchangeable, I guess we should, too. ("Flat Beauty," one of my favorite Pollard solo songs, was shit-hot live. I was more clear-headed for that GBV show than is usually the case--I was 7 months pregnant.)

UPDATE: I now have all of From a Compound Eye! Not a disappointment, but not too much of a progression either, so the samples gave a fair sense of the full thing.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

What I'm Really Up To...

if you care, is thinking now about this book I want to write and have been framing out. I figure it looks like this:

Preface: London, 1965. A snapshot of the aesthetic.
A chapter on the early 70's, The Raspberries, Blue Ash, that sort of thing.
Then the sort of flowering in the late 70's. early 80's, organized by scene: NYC, Chicago, LA, Great Britain. Maybe a chapter on each, looking at a couple of bands, thinking through differences.

It looks to me like everyone had something perfect and effervescent in 79, but that by 81 something had changed radically. I'm working on that now. I'm trying hard not to blame the Thatcher/Reagan shift, but I keep coming back to that basic change in the zeitgeist. I'm always hesitant to ascribe certain artistic forms to certain political situations: as a postcolonial lit scholar, I see a lot of people do that, and I know sometimes it's just sloppy work. But in this case it might be true. I'm also willing to entertain the idea that MTV had something to do with it.

I'm thinking a postscript on the alternative pop scene of the mid 90's as well.

What do you think?

(I've also been fascinated with the burgeoning gay-conservative-shill-who-just-happens-to-be-a-hooker scandal, and have taken on organizing duties for EschaCon. So a full plate.)

Friday, February 18, 2005

Friday BabyBlogging

If you want to see pictures of my kitties dressed up to look like the Gilmore Girls, you have only to ask.... Posted by Hello

DVD Decadence

Power pop seems to be making something of a comeback, it seems to me. Maybe I'm just paying more attention these days. But there's a great deal of classic stuff out or coming out on DVD, mostly within the last couple of years.

For example, last night I watched my newly-arrived copy of Getting the Knack, a documentary which came out a few months ago outlining the rise and fall of the best-known act to come out of the era. A (probably unnecessary)confession: I loved them. Perhaps at some point I will dig out a picture of myself at thirteen, posed in front of a wall of posters and magazine clippings, all Knack-themed. It's a good film, really, and a good reminder that, while "My Sharona" continues to be annoyingly catchy, they were actually a good, solid pop band despite the hype. Personally, I had all but fogotten the Knuke the Knack campaign, which gets a pretty good-natured retelling here.

Similarly, Teenage Kicks, also released last year, tells the story of the Northern Irish popsters. It's particularly poignant because the film prominiently features the late John Peel, who helped break the act and always cited "Teenage Kicks" as his favorite song of all time. I also recently acquired, on CD, the first Undertones' record I ever owned, The Positive Touch, and was struck again by the magical combination of the writing of the O'Neill brothers, the unusual sounds they coaxed out of their guitars, and the indescribable voice of Ferghal Sharkey. It looks, from the DVD, as though the rift which split the band in the 80's remains unhealed. Sad, really.

And, according to Black Vinyl,
Work is also being done on a SHOES DVD which looks to include all 7 "official" SHOES videos; "Too Late", Tomorrow Night", "In My Arms Again", "Cruel You", "In Her Shadow", "When Push Comes To Shove" and "Feel The Way That I Do", interviews and even some concert footage! No release date is available, yet.

I'm the biggest dork about this band on the planet, and I've only seen a couple of these, so I am beyond excited.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Friday Big-Boyblogging

With due respect to Thersites, My Son Cool. Posted by Hello

To Caesar What Is Caesar's

One of the things I love about pop is its willingness to acknowledge debts. Few current bands do this more zestfully than Fountains of Wayne, whose mega-hit "Stacey's Mom" (video here) veered right out of tribute and into open mimicry. But then they're a bit snarky that way: when I saw them they stopped in the middle of "Radiation Vibe" and launched into "Carry On, My Wayward Son."

Heh. The crowd lapped it up without missing a beat.

But this is serious. Apparently, FOW are playing The Hollies in an episode of American Dreams.
The episode of the show -- which often features contemporary musicians portraying Sixties icons on American Bandstand -- will air in mid-March.

"Originally when [NBC] approached us, they suggested the Animals," Fountains co-frontman and songwriter Adam Schlesinger says. "But we were always bigger Hollies fans, so we asked them if we could switch, and they obliged."

But unlike all of the previous musicians who have appeared on the show -- including Alicia Keys and Kelly Clarkson -- Fountains of Wayne recorded their own rendition of the song, rather than using a pre-produced track.

"We were more comfortable doing it this way," Schlesinger says. "We've done tons of covers songs as a band, but the tricky thing is when you're trying to be literal, like we were this time. With most covers you want to take some liberties and change the song around, but we tried to stay as close to the original as we could. I think we came pretty close."

Does anyone know anything about this show? I've never heard of it, I confess.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Bonus Wednesday Babyblogging

Admit it: you'd kill for a chair like this. Posted by Hello

Local Color

An assertion: pop, my kind of pop, thrives in small towns. Not always, and not exclusively, but often, small towns are the best incubators for timeless pop gems.

Exhibit A: Stephen Lawrenson.

Lawrenson lives near me, in the bucolic splendor and rolling hills of the northeast. He's a grownup, with a job and kids and stuff. And in 2003, he retired into the kingdom of his mind to create a pop record. Now, there's nothing so unusual about this, really. When the DIY ethic and the digital revolution coincide, miracles are possible. One guy alone in a room can produce sounds it used to take a serious studio to generate. Hell, anyone with money can make a vanity record. That doesn't mean anyone wants to hear it. But Lawrenson sent an EP off to Paisley Pop in Portland, Oregon, and they encouraged him to make a full-length CD.

The CD in question, Every Summer, is now out, and garnering great reviews. He played IPO in Philadelphia and will play in Nashville next month. He's getting airplay on and

Like the best pop, Lawrenson wears his influences proudly: The Beatles, ELO, The Hollies, the Raspberries. The essence of the genre is not just wearing the influences, it seems to me, but weaving them, too. Lawrenson has a gift for that. Expect layered guitars, thick harmonies, infectious melodies, plus a vague psychedelic daze that hangs over many of the tunes.

David Bash, the mastermind of International Pop Overthrow, has included Lawrenson in his Best Albums of 2004. Another reviewer has called Lawrenson's CD, "10 perfect tracks timed to such an effect they most certainly do not overstay their welcome but leave you wanting more without the frustration of not being able to get it. The rich harmonies (and their carefully layered arrangements) are a balm to all our pop senses with their uplifting refrains." (Bruce Brodeen, Not Lame). Indeed, one track clocks in at just under 3 minutes, another at just over 4, but mostly these are traditionally structured gems, and stand up to the best of the form.

Small towns can be stultifying, no doubt. But they can also free an artist from the tyranny of the hip. When there is no scene, there's no scene to keep up with, and the timelessness of pop can grow unimpeded. As Lawrenson asks, in "Town," one of the best tracks on the disc: "Is it so wrong to lead a simple life?"

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Band Crush Redux: TNP

Being a grownup, I don't crush as often as I used to--it's harder to find things that touch me in the same way these days. Plus, you don't need to look as hard for a new crush when, say, Wasp Star or 4-Day Tornado are still right there in the CD player. But when it happens, it's intense, maybe more intense than it was earlier in my life. I'm not as fickle, but I'm greedier. Uhhh, I think I'm gonna drop that metaphor for the time being.

Those who know me know that I've been on three roughly parallel band crushes for about two months now. One's on a new band, one on a band that's getting kind of famous, but the third, which only gets worse with the passing days, is maybe the worst band crush I've had since 1994 (and never-you-mind who that was).

Nope, I'm dopily obsessed these days with The New Pornographers. They're a massive band from Canada (by massive I mean 7-8 rotating members, and getting bigger all the time). Smart lyrics, fiercely catchy melodies, amazingly complex arrangements. I'm not usually such a keyboard person, but I love the way TNP uses them. The effect of all these instruments, all these voices, is a really lush sound, both solid and soft. Forcing an mp3 upon one of my correspondents, I compared it to listening to a black velvet painting. (Oh, how I wish I could take credit for that metaphor, but no. It goes to someone I once knew, a sculptor, who referred to Chunky Monkey ice cream as tasting like a black velvet painting. So, if you'd like, you can also think of TNP as sounding like Chunky Monkey tastes. It works for me.) Of course, that was a track from their second record, the thicker The Electric Version (2003). The first, Mass Romantic (2000), is more direct--the almost choppy guitars opening "Letter from an Occupant," just to give one example, wouldn't be out of place in pretty much anything I listen to (or, think Panda Paws here). And it took me ages to place the unusual guitar sound on "The Electric Version," but I finally found it: The Undertones' Positive Touch. Heh.

But if I'm honest, what really gets me about TNP are the vocals. Reams have been written, gigabytes have been consumed, trying to describe the voice of Neko Case. I can't do better, so here's a sample:
To listen to Neko Case recorded is an incredible experience, but to actually watch her sing is breathtaking. While the audience (and sometimes the rest of the band) gasps in awe, struggling to draw enough air to yell into a friend's ear "can you believe her voice"?!, Neko simply opens her mouth and lets loose an auditory assault. In a good way. The English language needs a new verb to describe the manner in which Neko produces sound. It is not singing. It is some peculiar form of channeling, in which her vocal chords become conduit for a blend of Linda Ronstadt's, Patsy Cline's and Ozzy Osbourne's voices, driven through a Marshall amp with all the knobs turned to 10.

The pisser here? NOT exagerration. And when she's back-and-forthing with her bandmate and spouse Carl Newman (who had his own breathtaking solo project last year, under the name A.C Newman), the effect is amazing. I'm not even going to gush over the effect of the three- and four-part harmonies that litter the place effortlessly. Damn! Off the top of my head, I can only think of a few bands who combine male and female vocals as effortlessly: think Velocity Girl, not Sonic Youth.

And they're in the studio. Now. (Well, maybe not now: it's 5am on a Sunday morning, Vancouver time.) I'm giddier than I should be. Done in March, out by September, Newman promises.

We learn over at Pitchfork that:
The other good news, in addition to the general lack of waiting, is that Neko Case and Nora O'Connor will both sing on the new record, and that Dan "Destroyer" Bejar is reportedly contributing much more to this record than on 2003's Electric Version. And Newman may be planning a dreadlock holiday of his own: "We're still trying to find a way to insert some dub/white reggae in the mix, just as an intellectual exercise, to see if we can do it without being dropped from the label." He telepathically hastened to add, "I know it sounds awful but it will all work out."

I trust 'em.

For some cool TNP stuff online, check here and here. I like the video particularly, because that's how TNP feels to me. And you can get both TNP & Newman solo mp3s at the mp3 site. Yay!

Friday, February 04, 2005

Late, but Still True

I did not note at the time the passing, last year, of two of power pop's most ardent advocates: Greg Shaw and John Peel. Both used their influence to push for wider awareness of the genre, and wider distribution for the artists.

There are a series of nice reminiscences about Shaw over at by known and not-so-known writers he worked with, or published, or influenced. As Mark Boudreau notes:
To me though, the most impressive legacy of Greg Shaw was the inspiration that he gave to other people, often total strangers. In reading the numerous tributes far and wide on the Internet, it is astounding to see how many people Greg inspired to either start a band, buy a particular record, support a particular group, or be introduced to a new genre of music, be it garage rock, punk, power pop or some weird psychedelic drone rock hybrid that nobody else had heard of. He inspired all kinds of people to start record labels, rock and roll clubs, and fanzines to spread the good word that, yes, rock and roll is still alive and thriving all over the world in great local scenes, just bubbling under the mainstream and you should get up off your ass and go check it out for yourself. He encouraged music lovers to do something and not to just passively consume. When I e-mailed him and told him that I was inspired to start The Rock and Roll Report partially due to his "Revolution Now!" editorial on the Bomp! web site, he wrote back and expressed some concern that "the real problem is that people would rather be consumers than doers. Even those who say they want to help often don't have a clue how to actually do anything, without being shown step by step." Rock and roll is not, and should not be, a passive activity. We have to go out and create the music, write about it, promote it, and record it if it is to continue to flourish in the little nooks and crannies of our musical world. Greg did it and did it exceedingly well.

They also link to some great graphics from Bomp!.

Peel's passing received considerably more attention.

Well, you get the idea. Not that there aren't various tributes also up for Shaw, but considerably fewer. I credit this to Peel's position as a big fish in a small pond: from his chair at BBC he could reach a huge audience, helping bands make it, and quickly.

Peel's best known to me as the man who broke the excellent Northern Irish pop band The Undertones. I've always had a thing for them:, great, mainstream pop coupled with the seriously bizarre vocal stylings of Feargal Sharkey. One of my Christmas gifts this year was the 2004 documentary Teenage Kicks, which features interviews with the band (though not, alas, together), and lots and lots of John Peel. Reportedly, the Undertones' song "Teenage Kicks" remained his favorite all his life.

Sad passings, really.

Another Candidate...

for the best Band Name Ever.

Two Gallants.

They're not really pop, though there's some hooky guitar work going on. They're more of a bluesy two-piece, a la White Stripes.

Maybe this only amuses me. But anyone who knows me knew that it would....

No Babyblogging Today

Poor Rosie's got a double ear infection, the croup, and the trots. And she's been exposed to RSV. Trust me, no one wants to see her like this. She's got the hack of an eighty-year-old smoker, and almost as many medications. Back next week!

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Bob's Comic Stylings

I was something of a latecomer to Guided by Voices, by hardcore "Pollard's Bitch" standards: we didn't own a CD of theirs until 95 (but quickly caught up), and we only started seeing them regularly in 98 (but mostly because we were living in a part of the country where only the most intrepid acts would wander). So we missed Tobin Sprout and much of the classic lineup, though we did get to see Greg Demos piss onstage (and I'll tell ya this: there was no bucket, like this last tour; He just pissed on the stage) and once we saw him split his ridiculous striped stretch pants open, three songs in.

But everyone knows that when you go to see GBV, it's really all about Bob. Pollard is a genius, though arguably a psychotic genius in the mode of Shane McGowan. He's just one of those people it's probably a pain in the ass to know well, but whose artistic production is so jaw-dropping that you wish you did anyway.

It's only onstage that Bob is really Bob. The one time I met him offstage, he was surprisingly shy and awkward. I'm reminded of that encounter every time I watch Mighty Wind, which has perhaps the most subtle and intelligent characterizations of various musician personalities I've ever seen make it onto film. I see Bob as Mitch, who fits in his skin only when he's performing. (Levy's performance in this regard is amazing: his entire physical mien changes when Mitch is "on," but as soon as the song ends, he sighs, looks skyward, and is just, well, weird again.) For Bob, however, the banter seems to be as much part of the performance as the music. I've seen him make a Greenwich Village crowd admit that Dayton, Ohio is cooler than they are. It's a sign of the thrall in which he held his audience that they did so willingly.

Nevertheless, I'm not utterly convinced this is going to work:
Yes, to tide fans over before the pending release of his first proper post-GBV solo album, From a Compound Eye, Pollard has issued a vinyl-only comedy album in the vein of Elvis Presley's novelty classic Having Fun With Elvis on Stage. Poorly titled Relaxation of the Asshole, the LP consists of "Bob's best routines and bits" (read: stage banter) recorded live between songs during his tenure with Guided by Voices, and features such golden memories as "Funk Zeus", "What a Mother Does for Her Son", and "Is There a Grandfather Clause for People Who Need a Cigarette Really Bad?".

The Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay "The Work of Art of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," argued that what is lost in the age of mass distribution of art is the "aura":
This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.

I've seen Pollard perform many times. It was never the same twice. He's made me laugh uproariously, but I'm not sure that his humor can survive the loss of its aura, its excision from the community of true believers, its reproduction in my living room. I'm not convinced it will "reactivate" the experience of the live performance for me.

Following GBV was always dabbling in a cult, as I've noted before, and the cult, Benjamin tells us, is the real source of the aura.
Originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual—first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value. This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty.

Live music, it seems to me, is one of those arenas in which the aura still packs a big punch. Concert reviews are always disappointing, because there's no way to communicate the contact with transcendence that live music brings. I get antsy if I go too long without seeing a band; even if they suck, I just have to get out there. I don't care if there are mistakes: the anarchic aspect of it is part of the point for me. And GBV always provided that element in spades.

But recorded live music is a somewhat dodgy proposition anyway, no matter how well produced. You get all the rough edges, and none of the aura. And banter always sounds weird outside the room. Cheap Trick's otherwise fabulous live album, Silver, suffers from the fact that the tracks break at the beginning of the songs, so the banter at the end of one track only makes sense if you're listening straight through. You know, like not on an ipod set to shuffle. Listening to Rick Neilsen's banter out of context is one source of my trepidation.

The other is the performance of GBV on Austin City Limits. They were great, they're always great, but watching Bob get drunk, listening to him wax poetic when you're not in the room--it's just different. "We taught the world that you can suck and still rule," he slurred in one late rant. Oh, boy. I'm having trouble picturing a whole album of that sort of thing.

(Worth noting: Benjamin kind of liked the new age, thought it meant increased democratization and politicization of art, and the Frankfurt School was okay with that.)