I met Chris Onstad during his signing tour for his hardcover collection of the Achewood arc The Great Outdoor Fight (the actual book.) I’d been a fan of Achewood for years; the much-lauded webcomic having seen me through both good times and bad, and with good chunks of the dialogue and panels are now permanently burned into my brain. I have friends with whom I can carry out entire conversations with Achewood lines. Something about the humor, the mix of earnestness and obscenity studded with the offhandedly absurd (they are talking animals after all) and studded with Onstad’s utter refusal to let idols stand is a consistent fresh breath in the webcomics genre. The art – detailed black-and-white minimalism – is also a unique entry among his peers.
I showed up a little early to line up outside of Rocketship, Brooklyn’s premiere indie comic book shop. The line had already formed somewhat, populated by the exact sort of hip young things one would expect to attend a signing for a webcomic that had nothing to do with video games. I was there to meet a friend reserving a spot and in a pretty significant surprise, he was standing directly behind a former coworker of mine from the stompin’-around-all-punk-rock days. While standing a little closer to the entrance, Onstad wandered out of the shop for some air clearly enjoying both the attention and the noticeably healthy amount of liquor in his belly. This was the first time I had ever seen the man as he is/was known for a lack of identifiable photos. He wandered back inside, time passed, the signing proceeded into the store and yet he was nowhere to be seen. I had been to Rocketship a few times; it’s a small shop and even when packed with college students the back was visible. Where could he be? And why was the line vanishing into a corridor? The line continued to proceed into said corridor, cramming us shoulder-to-shoulder. There was a small merch table set up selling assorted Achewood ephemera and. Having already owned a copy of The Great Outdoor Fight - I pre-ordered it when it was but a gleam in Amazon’s eye - I purchased the Achewood Cookbook on a whim. I saw an open door into a much larger hall a little beyond me and then it made sense.
The back room of Rocketship was connected directly to the lounge next door. As we walked in, I located Onstad. He was standing at the bar, polishing off a drink and having pleasant and casual conversations with the signees. I told him how much I loved Achewood and asked him if he would be writing any more Nate Small short stories (a Hardy Boys-type series he made available on one of the paid-subscription websites.) It took him a moment to actually realize and recall what I was talking about, which gave me some considerably insight into his artistic process. He signed my book, sketching Roast Beef inside it – take a moment to consider an artist who, during a significant and free signing, draws a sketch for everyone. A photo was taken and while putting on my coat I asked him to sign the Cookbook, which I decided at that moment, was to be a gift. He looked mildly annoyed at my holding up the line, but didn’t say a word and obliged. We left immediately thereafter.
I spent last night browsing YouTube for live sets of bands that I like and came up with two gems I've been ever-so-giddy to share. The first is a live set featuring Rap (a.k.a. Dragon, a.k.a. video artist Hari Ziznewski) opening for wunderkind Beirut in 2006. He is accompanied by the incredible Alaska in Winter. While Rap remains relatively – needlessly! – obscure, Alaska in Winter has been all over the place; his track “Your Red Dress” was featured in an episode of Gray's Anatomy (season 4, episode 15.) AIW's 2007 LP Dance Party in the Balkans has been one of my most listened to albums this year and one track features a young(ish) Zach Condon (of Beirut) on vox. So here's Rap and Alaska in Winter with “Sega Song”.
Now, this one is the real treasure. YouTube's own goldenpuppy1 has been slowly and steadily releasing a live set Neutral Milk Hotel played in New York in 1998, on their tour for the seminal indie album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Neutral Milk Hotel are responsible for some of the greatest music released during the 1990s and, in my opinion, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is their crowning achievement. If you have never heard this album you absolutely, absolutely must. To certain individuals of certain tastes, lead Jeff Mangum's nervous breakdown and complete resignation from the world of music was an event with as much resonance as the death of Kurt Cobain. Considering that a twelve year old VHS transfer isn't the best introduction to this band, I'll make this offer: if you want to listen to this album that I absolutely fucking insist you listen to, drop me a line and I will hook you up. No one who claims to enjoy music should go through life without hearing In The Aeroplane at least once. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying you'll necessary like it. Much like the styling of John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, it is easy to dislike Jeff Mangum's unique vocals and abstract lyrics, and the band's insistence on bizarre, noisy instrumentation. Whatever. As far as the experimental aspect of 1990s indie rock is concerned, they're the origin of the species. Considering that there has been an absolute dearth of quality NMH recordings on YouTube – there are a good videos of Mangum's solo sets however – these videos are a revelation. Now here's Neutral Milk Hotel with “King of Carrot Flowers pts. 2 and 3”
And here is my single favorite song of theirs, “April 8th” from the album On Avery Island.
The rest is here and seems to be irregularly updated.
P.S.: I've gone through the archives and categorized all my posts featuring live music with the live category-tag.
Valerie (MySpace) is a French synth-pop/new-wave-revivalist collective. I don't have much information on them as 95% of their written communiques to the outside world are in French and I don't really care enough to translate invitations to parties halfway across the world. One of their better known artists is Anoraak, and he has released the entirety of his album Nightdrive With You here. His - and by extension Valerie's - music is at once simple and nostalgic, with the occasional hilariously misstep (seriously, dude? "I had sex with another girl"? That's not a song lyric.)
What I really wanted to write about was their album cover design, which, due to my previously professed 80s futurism fetish, hits all the right notes. I love everything about it: the neon coloring on dark backgrounds, the style-over-substance sexuality and especially the technological imagery reduced ad absurdum to afunctional gadgetry:
...and here's my favorite Valerie track: Anoraak's remix of College's "Teenage Color."
On Friday night I went, with much trepidation, to see Owen Pallett (the artist formerly known as Final Fantasy) play at the Bowery. For those unaware, he is primarily a violinist and had, among his numerous guest spots, arranged the strings and provided guest vocals on Beirut's The Flying Club Cup. The trepidation stemmed from the fact that the tickets were a came-home-late-and-drunk impulse buy and I really hadn't any intention to see him live. I moderately enjoyed He Poos Clouds, an album rife with two things that would endear your humble blogger to practically any album: vocal desperation and oblique Dungeons and Dragons references. However, I couldn't really latch onto the dissonance, and after a few listens shelved the album away for a rainy day. His next and most recent release, Heartland – the first to be released under his Christian name – was much better. Heartland is, ostensibly, a concept album, but I have a nearly-superheroic inability to grasp onto album narratives unless someone holds my damn hand through them (a notable exception being The Mountain Goats Tallahassee, which I have listened to, in full, maybe twelve hundred times over the years and eventually just got.) The annoying, springy dissonance of both the instrumentation and his voice smoothed out and the entire sound was de-avant-garde'd and made significantly more listenable. It was because of Heartland that I was even mildly inspired to actually show up and not just pawn the ticket on last.fm.
Image co. For The 'Records'
Imagine my surprise when this turned out to be one of the better live shows I've seen. The opening band, Avi Buffalo, was a bit too precious for my taste. (In an odd aside, I ended up exchanging Flickr messages with the admittedly skilled lead singer/guitarist's mother after she mislabeled a photo I had posted. Apparently the band's relatives keep track of these things. Adorable.) I had managed to confuse Owen for one of Bowery's sound guys, confused by his ability to tune a violin. The only other individual on stage, whose name I have forgotten, assisted with a muted guitar and a small drum set with a set of cowbells taped on. As they started playing, it all came together. He generated the backbeat to the music by looping violin plucks/melodies, occasionally processed through a bass pedal, and a synth. He would then start playing a different melody and sing in that beautiful voice of his. Seriously. I haven't heard a voice that clean and pure on stage … ever, really. While musicians generally need to have their head around timing to play, listening to Owen set up his own backing and play to it was a sight to see.
One of my most favorite things about living in the Future is that I can go to a show and a few days later watch it again via a YouTube upload from some kid with a camera I could pay my rent with. So, here's Owen Pallet playing his opening track on Friday, January 18th, 2010, “CN Tower Belongs to the Dead.”
When I'm rushing on my run
Velvet Underground - Heroin (Demo)
And I feel just like Jesus' son
And I guess that I just don't know
Angry Youth Comix #2, Johnny Ryan
And I guess that I just don't know
Neil Krug is an amazingly ethereal photographer and video artist who just happened to have worked with two of my favorite musicians: Boards of Canada and Ladytron (along with Devendra Banhart). All links below are probably NSFW.
Pulp Art Book (Flickr, YouTube commercial) is a collaboration between himself and supermodel Joni Harbeck. The photos have his trademark retro feel - late-70s or early-80s as they were taken on expired Polaroid film. Between the expiration-based dyeing of the film and the desert setting, there's a very weary feeling about all these. Photography is an artform I am probably least erudite in, so I can't really speak about composition, but I know what I enjoy, and I certainly enjoy these. Not in the least because one of my favorite visual art subjects is an armed woman.
Krug is responsible for an unofficial video for Boards of Canada's track off the eponymous single “In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country.” The video mixes abstract video in BoC's circa-Geogaddi kaleidoscope style with old home video. It is a beautiful tribute to the group.
Officially, Krug shot the video for Ladytron's “Tomorrow” single off their latest album Velocifero. This one is more in line with his photography: models, desert scenery, sepia tinting and lens flaring. My only issue is that the mixture of CGI and his expired film-look while interesting, is a bit clashing in my opinion. The two are integrated well, but not well enough and it breaks the illusion of the film quality.
It was during my brief tenure as an assistant-manager of a West Village erotic novelties store that I developed a taste for contemporary pop music. Our shifts were twelve hours long and Top 40 radio – Z100 or KTU in our case – was de rigueur during the entirety of the the day (10 a.m. - 10 p.m.) shift. Once in a while, a higher-up would allow us a taste of the classic rock station, or an iPod surreptitiously plugged in to the sound system, but those reprieves were both rare and brief. The dyed-in-the-wool noise-addict with whom I tended shop during most of the night (10 p.m. - 10 a.m.) shifts would blast Cannibal Corpse or Venetian Snares around 3 or 4 (the store having long since emptied out and the few remaining customers dallying just long enough to pick up some prophylactics,) but this too was rare. For six months I received a daily dose of two- or three-hour long repeating chunks of music offered by the pop stations. On Friday and Saturday nights the rotation dropped between 45 minutes to an hour. I can't name any titles or artists, but if you were to play a pop song that reached its peak between August and December of 2006, I probably know every single lyric.
Like every hip, young whateverthehell, I enjoy Lady Gaga and I doubt I would have been able to without the experiences outlined above. Certainly, the bridges in her songs are often crap, on the ground of sounding far too much like all the other R&B-based pop music around, but the tracks themselves reek of a certain genius in construction and marketability. I've heard and said plenty about her image (the New Madonna/David Bowie/etc.) and ability to bring the genuinely weird back into a genre yearning desperately for weirdness. She doesn't leave any room for argument about authenticity because there isn't any at all. Much as I respect Vampire Weekend for not bothering to play the po' boy hipster and instead fully embracing their My Parents Own A Yacht upbringing, I respect Gaga for overtly posing meant to be marketed. What can you really say is inauthentic about a pop star who in her latest video (oozing with [experimental filmmaker] Matthew Barney influences) is bid upon during the climax of its narrative?
Unsure of my own feelings toward her music, I found what turned out to be a litmus test for likability. While I generally dislike virtuoso guitar – technical masturbation not being my cup of tea – I adore Igor Presnyakov's cover of “Bad Romance.” His playing has real soul in it (you may want to take notes, Mr. Malmsteen) and his interpretation both creates a brand new song, and brings to light every element of the original which makes it a good pop song. Enjoy.
...and make sure to check out his YouTube channel for more of the like.
"When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today is the tenth anniversary of the national recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Ten years ago it stopped being the impotently-named “Civil Rights Day” in Utah and “Lee-Jackson-King” day – wherein General Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson got top billing over MLK – in Virginia. As a nation we get closer and closer to readily acknowledging that we have and continue to be terrible not just to blacks, but to everyone. Martin Luther King Jr.'s efforts, the efforts which eventually won him a bullet in the head, worked toward dismantling the mindset of a nation which emancipated its slaves only to treat their newly-fellow citizens with as much vitriol and derision as it could muster. A nation where the poor took up arms against the poor on the basis on the basis of tradition. The same “tradition” which prevented them from ever seeing past these artificial divisions long enough to rise out of the shit they were born into, lived in and died surrounded by.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a dangerous subversive at a time when the country desperately, desperately needed dangerous subversion. It is important to remember the need if only because it is easy to imagine the '50s were Leave it to Beaver and the '60s were long hair and free love. These years were a peak of institutionalized hate; a time when giving your fellow citizen the shit end of the stick on principle was status-fuck-quo. I'm not saying we live in some sort of post-racial wonderland right now. I'd like to think things are a bit easier for blacks, but we still have sundown towns, and constituencies which would elect Strom Thurmond's desiccated corpse were they allowed to. And we still institutionally (that is: without openly acknowledging it even to our individual selves) maltreat fellow citizens on account of race, class, creed, gender and orientation. I can't even acknowledge that I or anyone I know are totally free from the prejudice of even a single one of those concepts.
This country, by the very laws which make it free, needs its revolutionaries. We shouldn't be remembering Martin Luther King Jr. as an individual who was honored as an assassinated orator. We should remember him as a man who a malformed social system resisted at every turn. A man who inspired right-minded individuals of all walks to brave police, hoses and dogs to tell the world that society had internalized a disease, and they would put their very lives on the line to expunge it from the body politic. An idealized perspective, definitely, but sometimes idealism is exactly what we need to fight for a day which it is necessary to fight for, but may sadly never come.
I think everyone who is reading this ought to take some time out and watch Spike Lee's Bamboozled (trailer). Spike Lee is a director of eminent skill and has the unblinking fearlessness needed to create a film about a black man bringing back blackface minstrelsy to the people. Black face minstrelsy, you ask? Didn't that go away with vaudeville and penny-farthings? I wish. In 1978, 1978, the British could turn on their televisions and tune into this (the actual clip is from a 1960s episode):
That's the Black and White Minstrel Show. A huge BBC hit up until the year before All In The Family was canceled. (Aside: I am aware that that All in the Family, one of the first sitcoms to deal head-on with social ills, was based upon a British show, but my point stands.) This show wasn't satire or anything but what it looks like. In fact, the show lost audience when they stopped doing it in blackface. And for those of you who are enjoying the entertainment value of this, which it has in a sugary and mindless fashion, Lee addresses that in his film. You will laugh because it is funny and you will feel uncomfortable because … it is funny. Bamboozled is probably the best exploration of the African-American in media I've ever seen, and an amazing (and highly expressionist) film to boot.
One of my new favorite bands, Parenthetical Girls, have released a split with Xiu Xiu covering Smiths/Morrisey songs. Parenthetical girls chose a classic: “Handsome Devil.” I can't get nearly enough of this song. Whereas Morrissey's plaintiveness in the original could lead to some confusion as to the subject matter of the song – the seduction of a young boy -- Zac Pennington makes things perfectly clear. There's a firm sense of violence behind his almost pathetic pleading.
Just for comparison, here is the original:
I think I have found one of the few songs in existence where a cover of a classic song does more justice to its subject matter than the original. Soft Cell's cover of “Tainted Love” is another great example of this. Gloria Jones' version is good disco, it's dance-y and she has a beautiful voice, but it feels like a disposable pop hit.
I know that it's hard to make the argument that Soft Cell's cover is anything but a disposable pop hit, but that “ohhhhh!” contains within it every bit of the desperation the lyrics try to get across. Every elongated vowel Almond sings is another nail through his heart.
Settle down, class. It's time for today's lesson in trivial referentiality. Now, we all remember the opening theme to Futurama, right? I mean, I do, but I have a tendency to rewatch the entire run every few months. Here's a refresher:
Now here is Pierre Henry's 1967 hit “Psyché Rock”:
...and that's how crayons are made.
Image co. The Infosphere