December 16, 2002

Heading out of town for a bit; when I return next week I'll have new Freezing to Death posts for you, and a fabulous Southside Callbox End-of-Year issue (hey Nate and Matt, get cracking on those lists). My Best Albums list is already online; I'm also working on a Best Singles list and some kind of written wrap-up of the year in music. Since everyone's caught up in listmania, here's a preview of my Top 50 Albums of 2002, complete with commentary on the top ten. I doubt I'll regret too many of these choices, but I'm already remembering things I left off. Enjoy, and happy holidays.

December 13, 2002

I've mentioned it elsewhere, but it's on my mind again: this word called angst. It seems like the chicken-scratch of a humorless 19th century Viennese psychiatrist, a term denoting a grave spiritual malaise, a suicidalist's soulsickness. Its usage became especially popular in 1990s rock criticism, following a timeline from Kurt Cobain to Tori Amos to Billie Joe Armstrong to Alanis Morissette to Korn to the Dismemberment Plan -- suddenly, "angst" was a catch-all for pop-punk poutiness, jaded cynicism, and any sort of earnest emotionalism or apparent unhappiness. Female singers were particularly "angsty" -- but the emerging nu-metal and emo contingents, both male-dominated, were also described as such.

I've come to loathe the term. It's terribly patronizing, this glib one-fell-swoop dismissal of everything that isn't placid and cheerful. Even when it's used as a compliment, it really isn't; it's so reductive that it takes people's serious concerns and cheapens them to the level of a histrionic teenage melodrama.

Detractors of the pop singer Pink have faulted her for her angst (once again, their word). I wasn't exactly a fan of Pink MkII, but I knew where she was coming from -- a tough, sarcastic, sexually ambiguous misfit whose inability to be anything other than herself often made her wish she was capable of being someone who fit in. I understood that, even identified a little; I just found her lyrics clunky and her music softrocky and too freaking average to accompany someone so individualistic. I thought her angst was the best thing about her, but I wasn't prepared to go all the way with her simply because she had a nice voice and a few good one-liners.

Well, "Don't Let Me Get Me" finally got me. I still find it problematic for the same reasons as before ("irrita-ting" is irritating, so is "damn Britney Spears," so is the production and session-man blandness), but there's that one line, that one crucial line she repeats throughout, "I'm a hazard to myself." And it occurred to me: This was a huge hit. Six-year-old girls are singing this, girls who are still a half-dozen years away from junior high school, puberty, identity issues. Whether it's a good song or not, it's probably making a lot of parents nervous. Britney's "Baby One More Time" left its masochistic "hit me" double-entendre open to interpretation, but Pink's song doesn't pussyfoot: It shows its subject after years of ritual psychological trauma (self-inflicted or otherwise), at the point where she doesn't wanna be hit baby one more time, she wants to sublimate her way out of being the punk ass bitch made fool, "to be somebody else" (literally) instead of relishing the pain. Britney's pain is titillating and exotic -- tourism in the neurotic underworld -- Pink's is like a mean, nagging mother who haunts her dreams and constantly chips away at her self-esteem. So a mother would have a right to be nervous, I reckon.

The more I think about "Don't Let Me Get Me," the more complex and troubling it gets -- and the more insulting "angst"'s contemporary flippancy becomes.

December 12, 2002

My two picks for Bootleg of the Year: Go Home Productions' "I Dream of Pussy," in which Khia's "My Neck, My Back" is mashed up quite skillfully with the I Dream of Jeannie theme music, and "Work It Out With a Foxy Lady," where Beyonce throws down with Jimi Hendrix. (Thanks to Oh, Manchester for the tip.)

December 11, 2002

RockCritics.com's Scott Woods reviews the latest installment of Da Capo's Best Music Writing series (and alludes to the future of rock criticism with a short list of web sites and "invaluable" music blogs, including mine).

December 10, 2002

Meet Erik Visser.

This past Sunday I performed with a choral society I've been singing with for a few months. The show went really well, much much more successfully than I'd anticipated. This is one of the better groups I've sung with -- there's certainly more of a love for the art/craft of choral music, and the director is very capable of describing the sounds he hears and the ones he'd like to hear. But I was concerned that we weren't ready. John's directorial technique clashes with my own concepts of how to teach a piece of music to a group -- he goes through things bit by bit, neglecting whole sections and focusing on single lines until he gets the exact result he wants, while I'd like to make sure the chorus feels the mood of the entire piece and understands how A and everything in between connect to Z. I love details, but I also love feeling familiar and confident with the material, enough so to put my apprehension behind me so I can concentrate on what my voice needs to do. Even towards the end of rehearsals, there were sections we'd only gone over once or twice, where we were trying to focus on diction and phrasing while straining to sight-read the passage. It was a little humiliating being berated for our incompetence in front of the orchestra and world-class soloists during the eleventh hour of the second dress rehearsal.

We're a decent group, but any group is bound to have its strengths and flaws. If I were a choral director, I'd do my best to be aware of those quirks and lead the group accordingly. If a particular criticism, repeated ad nauseam, is not improving our performance, maybe we're not going to improve in that area. But what are we good at that we can be great at?

American singers tend to value prettiness over phrasing. We're brought up to think that classical singing (opera especially) is hammy and gay, and many of us just want to be like the pleasant, high-alto, dynamically monotonous pop stars we've heard on Top 40 radio all our lives. Also, Americans have a habit of Americanizing everything -- I learned this when I studied foreign languages in school, that the kids who rolled their Rs and put lilts in their vowel sounds were ridiculed for caring too much, so eventually all the students went back to mumbling the oral assignment in their native dialects. I see this happening with my choral society now; whenever John says "There is no 'ihn' in the Latin language, it's pronounced 'een'!" the singers retain it the first time and inevitably revert back to the Anglicized pronunciation. I wish vocalists would let go of this weird fear they have of what they perceive as pretense. Still, I don't see this changing; it's too ingrained in our subconscious.

We have another concert this Sunday, at a different church. The acoustics at Old First were fabulous -- high, arched ceilings, perfect for voices to bounce off of. The Grace is nice, but it may not save us from our imperfections; the sanctuary is small and rather boxy, and I'm not sure how well our sound will travel. I hope we don't get drowned out by the orchestra (seated right in front of us). I'm terrified, of course. I was terrified last week, too. I've forgotten how nerve-wracking live performance can be.

December 06, 2002

Analog Roam's Kenan Hebert has a nice piece up at Glorious Noise, speculating on the magic of Motown and criticizing the new Standing in the Shadows of Motown for paying tribute to the Funk Brothers and Berry Gordy and Holland-Dozier-Holland in an insultingly flaccid, antiseptic way. Haven't seen the movie yet, but I suspect my reaction would be the same. The only thing I take issue with here is Hebert calling out Joan Osborne for being "far too white" -- this statement is loaded with stereotypes about the social codes and characteristics that make someone culturally "white" or "black," and he's wrong for assuming/decreeing that Motown is (not merely historically, but by definition) an exclusively black institution.

December 05, 2002

Surely it's becoming increasingly passe to discuss '80s metal's infiltration of noughties chartpop, but it's fascinating to watch older erstwhile celebrities slouch towards "relevance" using a music that means virtually nothing to the crucial kiddiepop demographic. It makes me wonder -- are artists like Celine Dion (who recently covered AC/DC's "You Shook Me" on VH1's Divas Las Vegas with Anastacia and soft-rocker Meredith Brooks) aiming for the same market as those admen who've figured out how to use cred-rock to trigger impulses in deep-pocketed newly-forty kollektors? Because those consumers aren't the ones who listened to Celine Dion in the '90s, and why would they start now? Have has-beens and their publicists become canny enough to know that if you dangle these kinds of carrot sticks in front of rockscribes and students of the pop sociology, WE WILL EAGERLY ACCEPT THE BAIT, even if it's not good (especially if it's not good)?

I bring all this up because Charmbracelet, Mariah's new one, has a cover of Def Leppard's "Bringin' on the Heartbreak." The fact of the cover is hardly a shock; it's part of its moment; whatever. And it's not as if Carey isn't a bit of a music geek herself -- her records have paid tribute, in varying degrees, to Keith Jarrett, the Emotions, and the Tom Tom Club.

But something interesting's going on here. "Bringin' on the Heartbreak" was a hit for Def Leppard in 1981, but it's certainly not their most famous song. As a piece of nostalgia, it seems to refer more to the era (the point at which the tame extreme of the NWOBHM converged with prom-chintz peddlers like Air Supply) than the band (populist summer-of-'87 glam-metal for Anglophiles and Archies fans). Still and all, it's a schmaltz ballad. And Mariah Carey is a schmaltz balladeer. For me, this is the great turnaround from the days of Vanilla Fudge, whose hamfisted emo-sludgenik takes on the quieter-but-no-less-hamfisted "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and "Some Velvet Morning" (songs that were, arguably, hard-rock/psychedelic BEFORE those wiseasses covered 'em) were either considered very novel or very mediocre.

Her cover is not "metal" really if you wanna get semantic -- it fits in well with the rest of the conservative elevator-soul on Charmbracelet -- but the original isn't particularly metal either. If you want (and I do), extend the definition of "metal" to include things like "November Rain" (this isn't entirely dissimilar), metal's farthest outpost and the place where the genre finally puts down its devil fist and admits that heavy rock and AM Gold and country and emo and chartpop and gospel are all just the same type of bad, gushy music.

December 04, 2002

I'm still enjoying my Mixerman fixes over at ProSoundWeb, and I'm glad the diary is giving me a reason to keep coming back to PSW every few days. Elsewhere on the site, as I learned today, is TapeOp's interview with Roger Moutenot, who produced a particular favorite of mine, Yo La Tengo's I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One.

November 30, 2002

I find this so therapeutic.

November 29, 2002

One of my favorite albums of 2002 was released earlier this month to very little fanfare: Robyn Sings, Robyn Hitchcock's collection of Dylan covers. I'm a big Dylan fan and a somewhat-big Hitchcock fan (more Robyn himself than the Soft Boys, although Nextdoorland is really starting to click with me), so I find this release doubly exciting. One of the nicest surprises on here is "Not Dark Yet," perhaps the best track on Bob's otherwise disappointing Time Out of Mind -- I found Daniel Lanois' production on that record unbearably pompous and verging on self-parody, and Hitchcock's simple gtr-vox cover redeems the song by rearranging it to showcase some of Dylan's most personal, bitter lyrics ("Well my sense of humanity has gone down the drain/Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain").

Another highlight: the similar treatment given "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," reminding me of Hitchcock's stark, dead-of-winter ballads on Eye and I Often Dream of Trains.

November 27, 2002

Newsflash: Anti-Complacency.org thinks I'm "talented." Thanks!

November 24, 2002

Seems like every day I come across a Google referral that's a real winner. Today's came from someone searching for a "Cobain headshot."

November 23, 2002

If you've seen or read Ghost World, you probably remember the "A Smile and a Ribbon" 45 that had special significance for Enid. Basic Hip Digital Oddio has a page dedicated to the singers of that tune, a '50s sister act called Patience and Prudence. There's a short bio, and some mp3s, including "We Can't Sing Rhythm and Blues" (they can't) and "Very Nice is Bali Bali" (an only-in-the-fifties gamut-run of Oriental stereotypes).

Joan Jett wrote a letter to Rolling Stone in response to the magazine's "Women in Rock" issue. The missive went unpublished, but it's making its way around the interweb now.

Jett is right to complain that "[b]y RS standards, Rock is no longer a style of music but a trendy costume to be whipped up by expensive stylists and slapped onto the latest pop tart barbie doll. Give a girl some tight pants and a spiky bracelet and POOF! She ROCKS!" It's insulting that female musicians who are accomplished and dedicated to what they do are left out in the cold as bimbos-come-lately in Halloween rock-star garb are treated as icons within the VERY SAME IDIOM that artists like Jett (a sex symbol, yes, but an excellent guitarist too) work in.

The problem is that Rolling Stone won't differentiate between "rock" and "pop" -- they're a "rock" magazine first and foremost, and the word itself lends weight to RS's reputation. Except now they're a "pop" magazine in a rock mag's clothing. A "Women in Pop" issue, even with the presence of Britney and Christina, wouldn't sell as many copies as the more impressive and formal "Women in Rock" (featuring the same women). But "rock" and "pop" are usually interchangeable terms and have been so since rock's invention. It was never problematic (as far as I can remember) when Madonna graced a "Women in Rock" cover in the nineties. The dilemma at hand is Rolling Stone's identity crisis as of 2002. They're clearly latching on to the rock-as-fashion-statement idea that the pop world has embraced for the past two or three years, and they're going us one worse -- they're subscribing to the tiresomely juvenile belief in (not merely rock but) RAWK, the notion that everything RAWKS and is BADASS and that if we wanna legitimize youth-oriented pop music and hip-hop we've gotta see it through the dusty old rock lens. This is rockism at its purest. And for a specifically rock-through-rock-lens magazine (i.e. what RS used to be), that's fine. But if RS is going to expand its definition of "rock" to make room for contemporary chartpop, it shouldn't intentionally confuse the sort of thing Britney does with the sort of thing Joan Jett does. It only makes both parties look silly.

This said, Jett's letter has a whiff of sour grapes to it, and it's obvious she doesn't take women in pop any more seriously than RS takes women in "rock." Her dismissal of Pink is pretty insipid and shows no understanding of the pop star's career trajectory. Pink's not synonymous with Britney. She's not "a Spice Girl reject," either. Female pop stars can have their own identities, just as female rock stars can.

So I'm glad Jett wrote the letter -- it's nice to see rock icons taking the establishment to task -- but it's not the letter I would have wanted Joan Jett to write.

(Update: I've since learned that Joan Jett is not the actual author of this letter -- it's now being attributed to someone in the Jett camp named Maya Price. I should have been tipped off to this when the writer referred to "Joan" in the third person.)

November 22, 2002

Let's see... I've been going out far too much lately, drinking too much, spending too much, staying up too late, and I seem to have roped myself into begrudgingly agreeing to throw some kind of birthday bash next week. And the truth is, I've gotten used to my recent spate of partywhoredom. It's cool to be among the last ones standing as the weaker dominoes fall away, go home for their sensible night's sleep, get that extra bit of studying in -- the end of the night often spawns more silliness than the beginning. I was out last night, and I was surprised and pleased at how many people made it to the 4:30 mark (by that time, the silliness had dissipated and turned to exhaustion, and it was decided that the party had pooped). I tell myself it's good for me, that this new set of friends is just what I need to help me kick off my late twenties; every so often I have to reshuffle my social deck, for the same reason I need to plunge into different musical genres, or move to strange cities, or create a whole new look for myself. I tell myself, after three failed flirtations with antidepressants and mood stabilizers, that alcohol is the best medicine. Doesn't take much. Three or four beers, the odd mixed drink, that's all that's necessary to lift the omnipresent anxiety and dread and get me to the happy special place where everyone (including me) is sparkly, engaging, funny, sexy, k-rad and a half. Inebriation is lovely. Except for being worn out all the time.

November 20, 2002

Yesterday I downloaded what I presume is the new single from Cat Power's forthcoming album, You Are Free. I've listened to "He War" maybe seven or eight times since then. I'm sucked in by the circularity/repetitiveness of it, the way the verses explode into stunning choruses in a slow bloom rather than a predictably disorienting loud-soft-loud pattern. The "hey hey hey" that it all builds up to -- "it" being the simple, heavy, martial rhythms and and tense, reserved melodies -- starts out as a single point and fractures into a throaty multipart chorale on its trip up the arc. And throughout, the riffs stay the same, but the verse parts and the bridges begin to bleed over to the chorus in layers, until it's clear that they weren't really "verses" after all, just introductory statements of themes she'd planned to use later.

(Thanks to Fluxblog for the tip.)

November 19, 2002

New mp3s up. The Dylan track is especially great.

Bob Dylan - "She's Your Lover Now"
Fania All-Stars - "There You Go"
Ann Peebles - "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down"
Rita Wright - "I Can't Give Back the Love I Feel For You"

Heads up: Mixerman's back!