6.25.2011

Gone Fusion

Well hello, there!

I've got good news and bad news. No mincing around, I'm gonna just lay it out there.

The bad news - starting today, there's going to be about a two week hiatus on this site. I've considered bringing in a guest writer to fill in while I'm away, but so far nothing has fit quite right. I truly appreciate everyone who comes here and reads what goes on, but just know it's a temporary absence.

The reason?

That's the good news.

I'm getting married today!

I know what you're thinking - how can you be writing when thats happening? Thing is, I have a few minutes before I suit up and am typing this on my phone.  She's the love of my life and truly my better half. I couldn't be happier to marry her. But we are going on a honeymoon and I won't be able to post until I come home.

So please check in while I'm out and read old stuff you might have missed. Who knows, maybe I'll be able to sneak something on here. But when i come back I'll get back to business as usual.

See you soon, as a married man!

6.24.2011

Home Alone 2

Alright, gang.


Like I said, today is Part 2 of my feature on Homeless. Below is the whole of an email interview I did with the rapper. Take a look at the first part of the feature here, then read on to get know the man in depth.


First off, how tall are you, exactly?
Exactly? 6'4" and 3/4. But I tell people 6'5". Just easier to round, and that way I don't feel like a five year old by getting overly specific with my statistics...

Do you have much of a set "process"? What comes first most often, the beat or the hook? An idea or a rhythm?
To be honest, my process would probably be considered by most artists as totally disorganized. Well, maybe we're all that way. But yeah. Piecemeal. Chaotic maybe? Form comes along eventually, but most of the time, my starting point is just a thought. I do a lot of writing in my head. I'll get an idea for two bars, maybe even just one, and it usually won't be in a convenient place. I carry around a Moleskine notebook, and I'll record lines into my phone if I'm driving, or about to fall asleep. Then later, I compile those, pick and choose, mash some together, and that usually gives me enough clay to start sculpting. Either as a hook, or a start to a verse, and I start to write off of that. I don't think I've ever sat down with a beat, and just wrote a track. God, I wish I could though. I'd be doing one a day. I'm working on the discipline to get better at that though. I'm a huge procrastinator too, which isn't always helpful. I'm about two thirds of the way through a song, just tonight. And I bounced over to this interview as a good distraction. I swear I'm undiagnosed ADD or something.

What was the first piece of music you bought? Cd or tape? Do you think it established a course?
It definitely would've been a tape. I think I got given Jock Jams Vol. 1 on tape as a present, but then I got the Space Jam soundtrack for myself. I'm not sure exactly, that was awhile ago, but that's gotta be close to it. Did it establish a course? I'm not sure, I don't think I'd blame the Space Jam soundtrack for my love of hip hop. But it definitely played a role in my early fascination I'd say. That movie came out in '96? I woulda been 9 years old at that time. And even though it was definitely for kids, that tape had Busta Rhymes, Method Man, D'Angelo, Jay-Z, R. Kelly, and more on it. I remember the hip hop tracks on Jock Jams being my favorites too. I guess what I'm trying to say, is any course I've landed on has certainly been influenced by small steps along the way, and I'm certain that those tapes being some of the first music that really energized me, and made me wanna pay attention, definitely contributed to my love of hip hop onward into the years when I discovered real music (i.e. not cartoon soundtracks).

What's your earliest musical memory?
I will be the first to admit that my memory is garbage. I'm terrible with dates and times and associating the when and where of situations. Outside of playing plastic instruments in school, or a rainbow colored xylophone as a baby? One of my clearest musical memories is listening to CD's in my cousins' room when I was in elementary and middle school. My cousins were older than I was and I didn't have that "cool older brother" type of musical influece, but my eldest cousin was the one who was actually old enough to own and buy CD's. He's 6 years older than me? Something like that. Anyways, he was the one who introduced me to The Fugees, The Beastie Boys, Jay-Z and eventually Atmosphere. I'd say he was the one who really gave me my musical education for the most part. I remember being young, and wowed by that music. It was aggressive and calculated and eloquent and it made you listen intently to it to pick up everything that was being said. I likely wouldn't have used those words back then, but I think the sentiment remains, that I was in awe of hip hop at a relatively young age.

Who's been the biggest influence on you, musically? Personally?
Man, tough questions, but important. Musically? I'm gonna say some thorough combination between Slug and Jay-Z. I'd say Slug, just because musically, he's influenced this entire city, whether people like it or not. He was also a pretty big shift in my interpretation of music as well. I was reading and writing a lot of poetry, and listening to a lot of hip hop, but had never really understood the fusion, until someone like Slug delivered and I understood hip hop was bigger than what I knew it to be. Not to mention, coming from Minneapolis from the bottom, as an independent artist, from a looked over city, gave a lotta kids around here hope that they could come from a place where music "doesn't come from" and make something of themselves. As for Jay-Z, it was the first full rap CD I ever owned. Hard Knock Life Vol. 2. I got that CD when I was probably in 4th grade? 5th grade maybe? I just played it until it was scratched and unplayable, and I had to rip it onto my parents computer (external CD burner of course) and make another one. I just banged my head, played basketball to it, and loved that record. Still do to this day. As far as my biggest influence personally? I still attribute a lot of my aspirations to my grandfather. My middle name is his first name. I was inspired by his wit and his charm and his wisdom and his skills. He was an alcoholic before I was born, and quit cold turkey one day and never went back. He really turned his life around. I think what inspired me about him, beyond all of his fantastic characteristics, was that he was an early example for me that people can change, no matter how old they are. And I've held onto that.

Do you have another artists career in mind for your own path, as a rough outline of what you want to accomplish?
I would love to have Blu's career ("It's B-L-U and if you see the E drop 'em). That dude has been eating off of music for a long time now. He's well loved by pretty much everyone in the game. And a ton of people don't know who he is. He's never, to my knowledge, fully signed on with a label, so every project he's dropped has been completely his own. Below The Heavens is probably the most classic hip hop album to come out in the past five years, and I know so many people who've never even heard of it. But yeah, that would be dope. I'd love a Rhymesayers career. I don't care if that sounds cliche. Again, hardworking people who love their art and eat off it. At the end of the day, that's all I really wanna do. Outside of that, I'd love to have a Lupe Fiasco type career, or somebody like Black Milk or Mac Miller. Independent. Solid. Eating offa art. Yeah.

Name a guilty pleasure, musically or otherwise.
Musically? Commercial hip hop and old poppy R&B music. I'll get down with some super ignorant or poppy hip hop with a good beat if I'm in the right mood. Sometimes it annoys the piss outta me, but some days it's just what you wanna hear. I also love me some Carl Thomas, R. Kelly, Trey Songz, etc. That type of slow, crooning, "Let's make love girl" music. I always have. Outside of music? I probably shouldn't make a public list of them, but I bet most people could guess them. We all sort of share the same seven or so guilty pleasures, don't we?

Is there a trend in modern music you love? One you hate?
It's hard not to bring up Odd Future when you talk about trends in music these days. They're the definition of trendy, and the bandwagon filled up super quick for those guys. Regardless of what you think of their music, their style, or their subject matter, you have to respect the grind. The fact that they're as young as they are and have come up so quickly as a 100 percent DIY hard working interesting unit, giving away free music all the time is impressive as hell. I think that trend, the idea that labels are dying, and artists are having to work harder to forge independent routes to success is something that I really dig. I think it's going to open the playing field and your radio is going to slowly but surely start to sound different. I think it's putting power back in the hands of the masses to chose what they like and want and the labels will have to follow suit. The internet has done that for everyone. As far as a trend I hate? Dubstep? I'm sorry, I know it's the new craze, but after 15 minutes, that stuff all sounds the same to me, and it makes my jaw vibrate. I've never been a huge fan of electronic music. I'm seeing it in hip hop too, where artists are trying to fuze electronic elements for faster paced hard hitting songs. I personally don't think it's working. Hip hop doesn't need to be more like other genres, it just needs to diversify within itself, and people need to understand that hip hop is many, many things, not just the dumbed down commercial version they're often fed.

Any local artists you want people to know about, or compatriots?
If you search for each of these things on the internet individually, it'll be worth it: The Tribe and Big Cats, Illuminous 3, Dumnfoundead, Big Quarters, Chantz Erolin, Grind Time Now, Miles Mendenhall, The Van GoBots, Evan Drolet Cook, Just Riley, Blu, Guante, Man Mantis, Mally, Analyrical, Daniel Switch, Max Selim. Yeah. That should give you some things to look up if you're bored and unfamiliar with those names. Emcees, producers, painters, writers, directors, rock bands, guitar players, all in that list. If you don't find something in that list that's aesthetically pleasing, or at least interesting in some facet, you might not have a soul.

What do you want an audience to know about you that might not be expressed in your music?
I'm really curious. I work really hard. I have a huge heart and I hate seeing people or things in pain. I want to travel the world. I have big dreams but I don't have delusions of grandeur, I just wanna be an artist and live off my work. I'm a huge people person and I would go insane without being social and friendly with friends and strangers. I talk to random people on the street. Oh yeah. And I'm still trying to save the world. I'll let you know how it works out.

6.23.2011

Home Alone

Kids!


Good evening.


I've spent my share of time writing about the heavy weights of Minneapolis music. To refocus the aim I want to spread the good word about my favorite underground cat, Homeless. Born and bred in Minnesota, Homeless has been grinding away in the underground, making a name for himself battle by battle, track after track, show after show and killing it every time.
I knew Homeless back when he was getting started with the Slam Poetry scene and quickly standing out in a crowd of verbose and dynamic kids. When he combined his powers, Voltron-style, with Just Riley they started playing shows under the name Mnemosyne. Having seen them grow from the smallest venues as openers to seeing them become headliners it's been a blast to have seen the growth first hand. Naturally I was thrilled to learn the duo would be releasing their own mixtapes, Just Riley's Kids Eat Free and Patience Makes Lighter from Homeless. The way these two play off each other's style is nothing short of perfect, their voices and inflections filling the gaps and hitting the pockets they leave with a deft delivery. 
Countless videos have been documenting the process Homeless is taking with his craft, whether its shutting down his peers in Grindtimenow battles, dropping new verse after new verse over whatever he can or even taking one-trick-pony Asher Roth down a peg. To watch Homeless in action is a strange thing - he's a man with ideas and lines that are so grand in design they almost seem to escape him, only for the mc to wrap it up in a finish so harsh and well constructed you think back to how he got there and you marvel to yourself. His passion and venom for the perils of society keep him on the brink of teetering out of control, yet he never loses his cool and always speaks from the heart. Take the response to Asher Roth - Homeless was frustrated with the vapidity and mental indifference of the one-hit wonder. The track he released about it speaks volumes for his devotion to hip hop and how seriously he takes every opportunity. The battles he takes part in almost feel like they're too one-sided as he picks apart his competitors piece by piece. 
This is not to say he's your typical angry-at-the-world, thinking man's rapper. There's a positive air and optimism you rarely find in his line of work. Take for example his video, directed by Drew Carlson, for the Man Manits-produced 'Rest In Peace'. It has the old-time sunshine of Motown hits combined with Homeless' insightful, introspective rapping. How many rappers do you know that can start off a hook with the words "Pardon me..." and still feel like they're speaking a raw, honest truth? There's a line in the track that speaks volumes about his style and mindset - "The line between a sigh and a deep breath is patience". It not only reminds me of times I've lost my cool, but adds another layer to the title of his mixtape. The patience can make us lighter if we want our to ease our burdens.


I can't say enough good things about Homeless and his endearingly weary optimism. Check out his twitter feed for the occasional burst of encouragement or a reminder not to be hollow. Stay tuned for my first ever Q&A with Homeless, which will be posted tomorrow. You check out his vids and listen to Patience Makes Lighter and come back tomorrow - get to know the rapper in depth.

6.22.2011

The Other White Album

Evening, cats.


I'm not gonna go crazy with content tonight, as tomorrow will be the first part of a larger concept posting that I want to do with the proper care and not as an off-the-cuff, exhausted-as-I-type-this sort of thing. Cause I am. What I am feeling like doing is taking a look back at one of Atmosphere's best records, in my opinion. I know I could take flack for it, but I love Seven's Travels.
Released in 2003, I didn't really get into the album until the end of my spell in college. My better half picked it up and let me rip it before she left town for summer classes out of state and I ended up putting it on the hard drive of my well worn Xbox. So while I would spend lazy summer nights playing Tony Hawk games and sipping beer, waiting for friends to get off construction work, I heard this album on a pretty frequent loop. Something about it hooked me and I can't quite put my finger on it. I know a lot of rap heads dismiss it as the back packer album or the subtle subterfuge of emo into indie rap, but I really don't care. It would seem that the people who spend so much time debating the purity of one genre of music or artist's work might take less enjoyment in it as an experience. Basically instead of complaining about sell outs of change in styles, maybe we should try to be less uptight and appreciate the artistic endeavor for what it is - an artist making art, be it visual, aural, sensory or taste related.


But I digress.


Similar to how Doomtree showed me that music can be a completely self driven, DIY affair, this album showed me that not all rap is of the kind news-anchors make dire warnings about. No violence, no gun play, no excess. Sure, Slug writes about women, but that's the thing - it's about women, not derogatory terms we use to subjugate them. He approaches his songs with humor and intelligent insight, tackling any topic he feels necessary. 'Trying To Find A Balance' is a fantastic track about just that - finding a medium in our contradictory culture. I adore the snapping chords that Ant used to create 'Reflections'. 'Gotta Lotta Walls' has this dizzying, disorienting sense of whipping your head around to grab perspective. One of my favorite tracks, 'The Keys of Life Vs. 15 Minutes of Fame', has a this crazy, peppy little sample that scrapes along, making you nod your head in time. 'Apple' feels like a modern version of a Motown track filtered through Slug's peculiar vision. The 8-Bit roar of 'Cats Van Bags' introduced me to the wonderful and massive Brother Ali. 'Shoes' is a simple yet classic hip hop track built around a drum loop and little else, showing Slug's verbal dexterity and sense of humor. And of course, how can I write about this album without mentioning 'Say Shh', about my home state of Minnesota.
I know it's got a reputation for being one of Atmosphere's less respected albums due to its appeal to mall kids, but I really don't care - I love the sound structure and feel to it all at the same time. It reminds me of that last, glorious gasp of a college summer and the fun times I had. If the sun shines this summer, put on Seven's Travels.

6.21.2011

Futures Past

I always thought the world would be different when I got older.


As many have observed, we anticipate the future to be some ultra-stylized mix of Futurama-esque, Jetsons styled culture with a touch of Back To The Future's version of 2015. Instead we have what is today - it's the same as the present always is, just a little older and a little more advanced.


To quote Homer Simpson: "This isn't the future! This is the lousy, stinkin' now!"


In some ways, he's wrong. Look at smart-phones - that is, without a doubt, some Star Trek business right there. Or how about the fact that our country is still mired in a series of un-winnable wars, all fueled by our defense-driven economy? Reagan would have been frothing at the mouth simply at the thought of it. Our cars all have rear cameras and GPS devices, wi-fi and Google are ubiquitous. There's nothing we don't know. 
I think it boils down to our expectations and the reality of our adulthood when we reexamine our current situation. It only feels stagnant and boring when we forget all the progress that's happened in our lives. Man walked on the moon more than 40 years ago - since then we've established space stations, which was no doubt the fever dream of the boys at NASA when they first started. Every day we're closer than ever to curing cancer once and for all. AIDS can be frozen in its tracks, if not someday cured. Hell, we can give you a new face or limb for less than the cost of a car. 


That, my friends, is the future.


What seems silly to me are the little ways I thought I would be able to gauge our steps into the future. Back in 1996 when I was babysitting some neighbor kids I was kinda bopping around the whole night, moving to a new-found sense of rhythm in my head. I had just seen, for the first time, the video 'Virtual Insanity' by Jamiroquai on MTV that night. I remember that it was winter and I was thinking about going back to school after Christmas break and asking if other cats had heard it. Of course they would all eventually say yes, as the single was huge, but what I really hold on to from that night was the feeling of unlocking something in my head, that there were new sounds out there. Until that point I had not paid much attention to music not made with guitars - I was firmly in the Weezer, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins vein. Jamiroquai, with their funky acid-jazz beats and electronic elements and white-boy dancing had shown me there were many more styles of music than I could anticipate. The world wasn't simply Rock, Rap and Country. Shades of gray started to show in my sense of understanding. 
I loved the song but always thought it was not the right fit for who I was at the time. A scrawny little 15 year old kid in rural Wisconsin, I had little use for funky dance tracks. I thought that it would be the kind of thing I would listen to when I was older, in some hyper-stylized future where technology zipped around me and I lived in a big city with hip people and a beautiful girlfriend. Now, as I type this, surrounded by more tech than I have time to indulge in as I plan the final steps of my wedding to a woman much more wonderful and gorgeous than I deserve, I realize how right I was. And I'm still scrawny.
I listened to 'Virtual Insanity' today, and it still feels futuristic. 


The future is a strange, hard-to-pin-down thing.

6.20.2011

Metal Hearts

I'm just gonna clear the air.

No bones about it - I'm a huge fan of Kanye West.

There. I feel so much better.

I am well aware of the reputation he's fostered. His behavior is, at times, bizarre, manic or plain self destructive. Either in spite of (or because of) said behavior I find both him and his music absolutely fascinating. With his genius come some demons - he's not the first to endure this and he won't be the last. Sometimes brightly talented individuals have minds that work a little...differently...than the masses. This would be one of those cases. So after perfecting his craft in the hip hop community during the turn of the millennium, releasing some unparalleled solo albums and having success go (deservedly) to his head, when he was dealt a particularly hard year, give or take, he went and little nuts and the world watched and waited as he retreated to the studio. He lost his mother, who was a corner stone in West's life. His engagement ended prematurely. The media began to focus on him with gleeful scrutiny and scorn. It's only natural he was feeling shaken and hurt. What we got when he emerged from the studio was almost completely unexpected, the confounding yet amazing 808s & Heartbreak.
Primarily known for being West's departure from rapping in favor of heavily auto-tuned vocals, 808s & Heartbreak is a notoriously divisive album. If you haven't guessed already, I find the album to be a phenomenal work by a tortured artist. The agony of the loss of his mother, who was known as a center point of West's life, plus the isolating effect of fame and media notoriety, pushed him to a lonely and cold place from which he crafted this strange album. Full of robotic vocals and synthesizers strait of out of The Jetsons, this album was quite unlike anything else at the time, right when auto-tune was ascendant but before it was ubiquitous. Even the title is inspired - the mixture of West's agony and his love of old school drum machines is at the heart of the music here. 
Some people were completely put off by the genre shift, and can understand that - West was (and still is) a master-craftsman when it comes to making hip hop albums. So a whole record full of electro-pop songs about being lonely and paranoid no doubt pushed away some of his hardcore fans. A lot of people were expecting and hoping for another in his education themed albums, not a pop-art, futuristic piece of minimalism. I think the concept of the album works just as well for me as the music itself. I love the ideas West put down on tape here, not just the songs (though they are, in my opinion, fantastic). That West sought to marry the natural and artificial so intricately and without hiding behind a cluttered mix excites my inner nerd brain as much as my white-boy hipster bad-dancing self.
 There's this larger-than-life archetypal sense of self awareness on 808s that I find fascinating. The opening track is absolutely in my ideal vein of music, all haunting and evocative moods, sparse synthesizers and beeps over low and slow beats. That it sits so easily along side the mammoth pop song 'Robocop' with it's over-sized strings and grinding robo-sounds just goes to show how much thought and craft went into constructing a cohesive work. Sure, West's vocals aren't terribly strong but the auto-tune elements not only shape them well but further illustrate how he was aiming to mix the machine and the organic. 

I really can't say enough great things about this album. It's only been three years but it already feels like people have moved past it, particularly in light of last year's pseudo-return to form with the even more deranged My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I was glad to see some of the experiments here have stuck with him on that album, but this one will always be a secret favorite of mine. If you dismissed it when it came out, give it another spin and see why so many others hailed it as a profound step in the artist's creative growth. It's uncanny and genius.

6.19.2011

Sun Shine

Evening!


It's been a nice Sunday here, the kind where, if the sun shines bright enough, you just put your windows down and drive. An album I still reach for on occasion during these cruises is solid but not widely popular one by the So-Cal rock band Lit. While everyone always knows the big single off the album, 'My Own Worst Enemy', there are actually some really good songs that fill out the album.


I don't know exactly what it is about this album - on the surface there's nothing too remarkable about A Place In The Sun. It was a CD someone burned for me in early high school and I didn't listen to it a ton right away. On a drive up to a friend's cabin I threw it on, knowing the girls in the car liked the single and I liked a couple other tracks as well. About halfway through using the album as background music someone remarked "This is pretty good CD" out of the blue. While that doesn't sound like much of an endorsement, in context it rang true - while plenty of other bands in those weird pre-iTunes days loaded their albums with filler, there were some great songs hidden in this seemingly random CD.
The opening track, obtusely titled 'Four', is a stomping number that has a chorus that begs to be sung along to. 'My Own Worst Enemy', if you've never heard it, is a ridiculously catchy single with a memorable guitar riff and more sing along anthem hooks. 'Miserable', another single (with a not-bad video featuring a giant Pamela Anderson eating the band whole) is kind of dour but still has a great refrain that screams late 90s guitar rock. 'No Big Thing' is a driving, hurtling number that is as poppy as it is rushed. 'Ziplock' was another modestly popular single on the album that is all sunny riffs and quiet-loud-quiet dynamics, a decent song but not totally that unique. 'Lovely Day' is a fantastic song that really stands out - I don't know why their label didn't choose this song over 'Ziplock'. It's got a really strong guitar riff and an insanely poppy hook for a chorus. The harmonies and guitars are total So-Cal riff rock in the best, sun-shiney way possible. 'Quicksand' is another great song that sounds better than a lot of the generic stuff on hard rock radio stations, relying on melody and hooks rather than dour wailing and bland riffs. I still love, years later, the absurdly low slung guitar parts to 'The Best Is Yet To Come Undone'.
This album is a prime example of why I write this stuff every day - it's a stealth wonder, a hidden gem that no one seems to really know or remember. I wish more people did - it's a really solid album with some crazy good songs that are just as infectious now as they were ten+ years ago. There's an earnest, postive nature to these songs despite the alt-rock exterior that I find so endearing. A Place In The Sun is one hell of a summer album - pick it up for some good driving music.

6.18.2011

Pharmacist

Allo, allo!


It's another overcast day here in MPLS.


Know what would fit it? The Perfect Drug by Nine Inch Nails.


Made specifically for the David Lynch film Lost Highway and included on the soundtrack to said film, the song is actually one of NIN mastermind Trent Reznor's least favorite compositions. I can understand his reasons - from what I gather, he basically forced himself into the studio and banged it out, out of obligation and experimentation. Particularly telling is the fact that they've never included it in their live shows. Too bad - I can't speak for the rest of the NIN fandom but I've always had a soft spot for the track.
In some ways it feels like the quintessential NIN track - it incorporates most of the common musical and thematic elements I've seen in their work over the years (Side note - yes, I am aware NIN is for all intents and purposes solely Reznor but he's maintained a few key players over the years). The ascending guitar/mandolin intro is super slick, a great, ominous way to start the track. As soon as the percussion kicks in the track is a manic, rushing number that doesn't relent until the track spins out of control, only to slide back down into somber, introspective denouement. Of course the whole thing could symbolically represent the affect of any number of pharmaceuticals, but I like to think it was an intentional choice on Reznor's part. He's obviously quite intelligent and talented - his music is notorious for its grander and more complicated elements. 
The accompanying video, directed by Mark Romanek, is definitely a fitting work. I know it's more a nod to the work of Edward Gorey, but when I saw it back in the late 90s I always thought of it more as a love letter to Edgar Allen Poe, what with all the American gothic elements and just how perfectly at home Reznor looks in the imagery, crows and vines and caskets and kids. The absinthe inspired madness is a perfect match to the frantic song.
When any band, especially one as prolific as NIN, begin to develop a significant back catalog, there are inevitably tracks that get left in the dust. This is one of those tracks. It's not the greatest song the world has ever heard but I still think it's pretty damn great. Give it a listen, why don't you?

6.17.2011

Youth On Film

Evening!


It's raining right now, on a muggy Friday night. I love it.


I just got back from a showing of Super 8, the new flick courtesy of J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. Long story short - I loved it. I'm not gonna get all gushy here; the movie was not without its flaws. That being said, I did really have a fun time watching it and would highly recommend it if you want a reason to head to the movies.
As is typical for Abrams, the project was shrouded in secrecy from day one and had a de riguer viral marketing deal to it that encouraged nerds like myself to get all obsessive and hunt down clues to get teases and glimpses of the movie. I have made it painfully clear here that time is one precious commodity of which I have little, so I wasn't about to start diving down rabbit holes to uncover tidbits about a film I would end up seeing later. In fact, the last time I saw a movie in the theater was back in late November of 2010 - the excellent and subdued Monsters, and that was mostly due to my curiosity and the fact that it was at a theater less than two blocks from my apartment.


Anyway.


If you've heard this movie summed up as a mashup of The Goonies, ET and Cloverfield...you're pretty much right on the money. That sounds like damningly faint praise but I promise it really does play out quite well. While the writing and script are fairly rote and your basic meat and potatoes Spielbergian "kids on an adventure while dealing with parental abandonment" genre, the kids chosen for the roles were simply great. A bunch of first timers and unknowns, these kids were a real breath of fresh air compared to some of the jaded and disillusioned Hollywood kids we've all become sadly accustomed to and accepting of. They are surprisingly talented and sweet and genuine, making the impossible seem at least a bit plausible, even as I approach 30.
The Abrams Lens Flare? Full effect, but less so than Star Trek.




The...secret...thing? Good, solid (both in the literal and figurative sense). I can't stand when a special effect/construct feels weightless and impotent (see Hulk and anything Twilight related). Really, the effects in the movie were tops - I found myself wondering how they could put kids in such danger when filming, only then to remember that 95% of the explosions never existed at all. The...secret...thing...was very much in Abrams' wheelhouse, if you've seen other...things...he's had a hand in. My companion for the evening observed that while there were a few interesting touches to...it...we've kinda run th gamut on what's original and novel for....things.
It's fun. It's not heavy handed. I've seen Spielberg step out of his comfort zone with Minority Report and A.I., both movies I enjoy dispute their flaws. I love most of everything Abrams has done, and this is no exception. I say if you want to hit the movies, skip everything else and see Super 8. It's a breath of refreshing sincerity and interesting storytelling in our jaded, irony-driven world. Do yourself a favor and check it out while it's on the big screen.

6.16.2011

Escape Artist

Why do I do the things I do?

That question is, in a way, at the heart of this site.

I don't necessarily mean in the grand, existential "Why are we here?" frame of mind, but rather the more basic, if-q-then-p logic of my choices and behavior. No doubt there are trends that are apparent to others in my writing that evade my detection. I'm sure there are not only trains of thought but word choice as well. Words like 'haunting' 'fantastic' and 'surreal' often appear in my reviews of forgotten or under appreciated music, but to a certain degree that can be traced to the material as well as my vocabulary and predilection. But tracing that thought further back - why am I listening to so much music that can be described in those terms? It certainly betrays a fondness for music of a certain vein. The jumping off point for this article was similarly centered.

I was waiting for the bus the other morning and listening to Apex Twin when I realized just how often I find myself listening to music that many would find unpleasant or disquieting. To clarify, this was not the thumping-and-pounding, acerbic Aphex Twin of 'Come To Daddy' or 'Windowlicker' but the contemplative and cerebral work of his compilation Selected Ambient Works II
. It's a lovely album, even if it is fifteen years old at this point. It's my understanding that Richard D. James, the man behind the madness, was essentially attempting to recreate soundscapes he heard within his lucid dreams, an idea that both fascinates and frightens me just a bit. I think it may be that same ethereal and intangible nature of our dreams that I'm chasing after when I spend my life with headphones on as I go about my business. Waiting for the bus, shopping for groceries, walking anywhere, really. There seems to be a fairly clean demarcation between what I would listen to in a car compared to what I listen to when I'm on foot. In cars, it's all hip hop and alternative from the 90s. On foot, it's ambient and surreal.
 Maybe it's a form of escapism. I've always been fascinated with my own dreams and the idea of experiencing lucid dreams. However, lucidity in dreams has never been something I've been able to experience. Take, for example, my piece on the Inception App for IOS devices - the way the code incorporates surrounding noise and reinterprets it along with a contextual soundtrack is, in a way, the closest I've come to that state of waking dreaming. In my early post about dark winter mornings and Akira Yamaoka's music I hint at this idea as well - that by adding that soundtrack to a time right after I wake up, it's almost as though I never left the sleep state. In the act of pumping ambient noise to my brain I'm blocking out the outside world, in what is a (perhaps not so) unconscious move to return to the subconscious.
 This is not to say that I find my life to be unpleasant or that I wish to escape from it, but I think more so that it's a move to block out some of the jarring sounds with more pleasant, dissociative white noise. One of my pet peeves is when people on the bus (or anywhere in public, to be frank) talks loudly on their phone. I'm willing to wager upwards of 90% of the passengers on my commute have phones, yet only a select few choose to conduct conversations on what is otherwise a quiet bus. While the reasons it bothers me are numerous, my reactions are limited. The best one I've found is to play music like SAW2 or the Inception App, which effectively filters out or negates the sound of half of a conversation I wish I wouldn't hear. Traffic and car horns, people yelling, construction sites - it all is a bit less disturbing when filtered through some heady music.
 This is why, I think, I have a predilection for ethereal and dreamy music that tends to skew my sense of reality. It's not some psychopathy or misanthropic nature, but simply a desire for a quieter, more serene experience as I navigate city life. Realizing this, I still choose to live in Minneapolis instead of, say, International Falls. Though, to be fair, if I had a decent wireless signal up there I might be tempted. Give it a shot - follow some of the links and see if it doesn't help undo some of the audio kinks of life. 





6.15.2011

Burnout

Hey.


I'm burnt like a match head. 


As in completely devoid of combustive. Spent. Used up. This is not a matter of only getting to this now, but a matter of not having the mental and physical wherewithal to type something of legitimacy and significance that would warrant your attention. 


So I'm going to be honest. 


I'm taking a dive tonight, gang. I'm tucking in and hoping a decent night's rest will bring some restoration of character and will power. I sincerely apologize for the lack of mental sustenance tonight, but I promise you I have something on the horizon. Something unique and novel that I have never attempted on this site before. Something I think you'll be surprised to see, and it's pretty hefty. 


So I'm asking you to be patient. 


I appreciate that you're even reading my groveling. Trust me, it will be worth it in the end, I just need to charge the batteries desperately. In lieu of the written word, here's something to bide the time - some artwork based on my favorite television series ever, LOST. I can take no credit for any of the work, but it still blows me away. Enjoy, and hopefully I'll see you tomorrow.












Still here? Cool.


Quick sidenote about the Mellon Collie breakdown - a comment from an insightful reader completely broke it down for me in succint fashion. Rather than force you to find it in the back logs, I'll just quote the comment in it's entirety  here:


 "Corgan was writing from a prospective as a teenager here, not as a "rock star". He set out to write a concept album ("The Wall" of his generation he perhaps foolishly boasted early in the writing process), and didn't exactly end up with one, but the voice of the album is still a teenager, perhaps Billy himself (10 years ago at the time), perhaps not. That's why you get such bizarre swings of emotion...from "God is empty" to "deep in thought I forgive everyone".


See? Dude totally broke it down for me in a digestible, instantly understandable way. I was close, but pretty much off target. Funny to see why it made so much more sense as a teenager than when I'm closer to 30. 

6.14.2011

Little Bugs

Alright, no pumpkins today.

Someday, though, I do intend to take a look at the Aeroplane set in depth. After gorging on a huge double album I thought I'd display a little self control. In contrast to the hugely popular behemoth let's take a look at Jar of Flies by Alice In Chains.

Once again the cool older brother gets full credit here. Alice In Chains was always his favorite of favorites, his band that he was into that I never quite hooked on to. Not to say they weren't a phenomenal band, by all means their Unplugged album still is hauntingly beautiful, a glimpse into a fractured and damaged band, revealing the beauty beneath the surface. I don't intend to do the typical dour look at the crumbling of troubled frontman Layne Staley - it's been done by every one else.
Jar Of Flies was really not supposed to be a thing. The band had just come off a big tour in support of the punishingly heavy Dirt and had found themselves booted from their homes. Having no where else to go, the band headed to the studio to crash, under the pretense of knocking out some impromptu songs. Its quite apparent this casual and unpretentious attitude was integral to the creation of this amazing EP. They showed that beneath the grungy metal band lay talented musicians capable of writing nuanced and moving songs.
Theres a beautiful, melancholic air to this EP, something that always brings me back to the cool fall night I first heard it, driving around our small home town. Th guitars are so clean and slick, like on the thwapping snaps of the low-end lick from 'Rotten Apple'. 'I Stay Away' is a fantastic example of the dynamics the band can work in - the verses are gorgeously picked acoustics while Staley's howling is backed by Jerry Cantrell's signature noodling. Plus the video is some freaky-deaky, always unnerving stop motion clay puppets. 'No Excuses' is a great, driving track that shows how strong they are, even without the grunge trappings. 
My favorite track on the EP doesn't even have vocals - the moody 'Whale & Wasp' creates an amazing atmosphere through the melody and the chord changes. It's that intangible air to it that really moves me. This is followed by the amazing and uncharacteristically sweet 'Don't Follow'. Built around a warm melody and Cantrell's husky voice, it's a great track and a sign of the amazing unplugged stuff on the horizon.

If you've never heard this EP, do yourself a favor and pick it up. Its still an amazing work almost twenty years later. The songs are distinct and dynamic, yet a cohesive and tightly made package. It's simply phenomenal and criminally overlooked.

6.13.2011

Twilight To Starlight

So.


Day two of the Mellon Collie breakdown. I'm surprised at my own recollections of this album versus the experience I've had after listening to the second half. As you could tell from my look at Dawn To Dusk, I loved the first half of this album. I really looked forward to digging into Twilight To Starlight and seeing what I had forgotten about for years. It turns out not only was my grand, unifying theory flawed in its overarching assumption but also that there was a reason I hadn't really revisited this disc in a while.


I just don't get it.


Maybe that's too broad of a generalization, to sweeping of a hand. In fact listening to the first half of Twilight To Starlight I was pretty engaged - there's a fair bit of solid material. It just seems to sag under the weight of the execution towards the back nine. Too much of a good thing? Maybe. But conversely I loved (and still do) the outtakes, the sprawling and massive box-set The Aeroplane Flies High. At some point in the future I'll dig into those as well, but it's funny to think the album itself feels like weak-sauce to me now and the b-sides are more interesting. I don't really know what to make of it. But I digress.
I've read that in switching producers (from Butch Vig to Flood and Alan Moulder) there was a re-focused effort to capture the sound and vitality of the Pumpkins' live shows. While the softer stuff may not equate so well, the harder material on this half of the album definitely make that effort clear. The first track, the meandering and venomous 'Where Boys Fear To Tread' could almost be a jam captured in the studio. Despite this natural, organic rock track there are fun little moments that were trivia-worthy at the time of its release - at key points in the track the percussion is augmented by the sound of explosions from the classic shooter Doom. You'll hear it if you listen closely.


'Bodies' is the Pumpkins at some of their best, a full on assault with buzzsaw guitars, Jimmy Chamberlains pounding drums and Corgan snarling "Love is suicide". It's a great song but has an abrupt transition into the peaceful, contemplative 'Thirty-Three', which is a beautiful and wistful song. Another natural single, 'Thirty-Three' has a bit of an old fashioned feel, a style Corgan seemed to dabble in around the time of making these tracks. 'In The Arms Of Sleep' is a dusty, lonely number that conveys the early aging of a performer and the draining affect the rockstar lifestyle can have. The guitars here sound so corroded and rusted, which not only give a great, creaky feel to the song but show Corgan and Flood's sense of keeping a track sparse. '1979' stands not only as a refreshing moment of pop cheeriness but also as a sign of what the band was really capable of - this massively popular song just never gets old for me, and the trick here might be that Corgan wrote the song as a love-letter to never growing up. It seems to be widely known as a song about youthful mischief and that no doubt owes a great deal to the accompanying video. It's a knock out.
Shame, then, that the jarring transitions continue. As '1979' drives off into the distance, waving goodbye, out of left-field comes a squeal of feedback and the band launches into 'Tales Of A Scorched Earth'. This is far and away the most aggressive track on the entire album. In it we hear Corgan screaming horrible things and how "I lie just to be real and I'd die just to feel". It's the Pumpkins at their most aggressive and if you can take the assault it's pretty great, just intense. Feels like their live show. As 'Scorched Earth' crashes to a close we hear a broken, tinkling piano and guitar melodies fade in, heralding the arrival of 'Thru The Eyes Of Ruby', a fantastic and grand song about the foibles of young love and youthful rebellion. It's a bit cheesy and cliched but it's so endearing and sincere that it sells itself on the love Corgan poured into it. Soaring guitars give way to Corgan singing earnestly "And with this ring I wed thee true". It's lovely, especially the small coda tagged onto the end. Almost hidden after 'Ruby' is the short and sweet 'Stumbeline', a song seemingly about Corgan realizing his own confusion and muddled ambitions as a performer. 


It's at this point I had realized my overarching interpretation of the frustrated musician only holds up conceptually and not literally - the second half of the album isn't a linear progression but more of a back and forth "I hate everything/I'm in love with the world" dynamic. I think it would offer something of an explanation of the jarring transitions and at times harsh segue-ways between songs, like how 'X.Y.U.' starts so abruptly. 
It's here that Twilight To Starlight starts to drag for me. This track feels like another rambling studio jam. Corgan's vocals are clearly a live take, very uneven but full of vigor and passion, but the song is too unpleasant to have much that would redeem it and it drags on too long. 'We Only Come Out At Night' is peculiar almost for peculiar's sake, the rote "I'm a weirdo" weirdo's song, although it does have interesting instrumentation and progressions. 'Beautiful' is a subdued, slightly sappy love song that redeems itself about halfway through, as the key changes and a great little riff shines through. 'Lily' is just bizarre - an old-timey, almost jokey song about watching your love through a window. I just don't get it, frankly. 'By Starlight' is a sweet love song but it feels to sleepy for me, but then again maybe that's the point. It's a dreamy number but there's something about it that just won't settle in for me...maybe it's that shimmering guitar tone. 'Farewell And Goodnight' is just a cute lullaby by the whole band, a sweet little end to the album with a reprise of the piano from 'Mellon Collie' at the tail end. It's a bit of an uneventful end to a huge and intricately produced album, really.


So what have I learned here? Interestingly, I still think the album holds up really well, it's just a bit of a niche thing if you're not now or ever a fan of the Pumpkins. I was surprised to hear how frankly conventional it sounds now, when it seemed to strange and unique fifteen years ago, but then again I should read what I'm typing here. The theme of Corgan being jaded and frustrated, writing about being a rock star still seems to tie it all together but it starts to unravel as the album winds down. Maybe that's part of the design. It was certainly a high water mark for the band. I'm really glad I went back and listened to it straight through a couple times over the last week, though. I still really like it. Dear god, do I have to do The Aeroplane box-set next?

6.12.2011

Dawn To Dusk

Alright, I admit it.


Yesterday's post kinda sucked, huh? No biggie, I was spent and I still stand by it, pointless though it may be. I still dig Hulu. Hope you're cool with it. Let's switch gears, shall we? To contrast the brevity and vapidity of yesterday's content, let's take an in-depth look at a strangely huge album from the 90s, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins. Being a double album, I'll take two posts to break it down a disc at a time. Today - disc one, Dawn To Dusk.


The Pumpkins were, at the time of recording this album, a huge force in alternative rock. Coincidentally (or perhaps not so coincidentally) Billy Corgan was known for being egomaniacal and...kind of a dick. He had Pavement kicked off Lollapalooza, for example, because of a (possibly imagined) feud. That ego-driven attitude was both a blessing and a curse for the band, as it gave rise to the most prolific and fruitful time of their career but also drove them to exhaustion and temporary ruin. In late 94/early 95, though, they were ascendant. Burning away countless hours in the studio, Corgan constructed what would be his magnum opus one obsessive layer at a time. Although he finally began to include the rest of the band in the process, what emerged is still unequivocally Corgan's work. The resulting concept album stands as some of their best work. Let's dig in and see what we find, eh?
The album opens with the eponymously titled piano piece, serving as a thematic forbearance and subtle indication of tone. While pleasant, there's not a lot to it, but I will touch back on it later in this examination. The album really wakes up and leaps to life with the epic and grand 'Tonight, Tonight'. It's a massive song, one that signaled that the band had grown and taken steps in new directions after the streamlined Siamese Dream. 'Tonight' feels vibrant and alive, even today, with its lush strings and urgent lyrics - a natural choice for a single. The video is still charming and fun to watch, as well. 'Jellybelly' feels a bit like a return to old habits, for better or worse. It's a juggernaut of a song, pummeling and hammering down with fuzzed out riffs but also wielding a soaring chorus that rides the momentum. It sounds like it could have been left over from their last album, but that's hardly a knock - it's just not that original for Corgan. 'Zero' does see the band change their sound in a subtle way. There's something sleek and metallic about this tune I can't quite put my finger on, but Corgan referred to it as 'cyber metal'. They would eventually come back to this sound during the Machina years, but that would be six years later. 
'Here Is No Why' marries the new and old sound quite handily, and its here the theme of the album really emerges. A lurching, syncopated riff and some lyrics about teenage ideals and giving up show both Corgan's strength as a write and his stealth aim. He's claimed Mellon Collie to be about "mortal sorrow" and themes of life and death but if you listen closely on this song and the next, the debut single 'Bullet With Butterfly Wings', it becomes clear Corgan is actually writing about his own disillusionment with being a teenage icon, the Bishop of Generation X in the absence of King Cobain. His arrogance and egomania and relentless work ethic pushed them to the top, only to realize he was alone in his tower, looking out at a sea of youth that would eventually move on without him.


That's what I think Mellon Collie is about. 


The theme continues on as the album plays. 'Bullet' is Corgan actually realizing the hollowness of his dream and being "still just a rat in a cage". 'To Forgive' is an abrupt shift to a sorrowful song of saudade and lost youth, which I think furthers my understanding of this album. There's hint of a great song here, but its buried under uninspired chord changes and dour mood. The next track, the nihilistic and inscrutable 'Ode To No One', seems to be Corgan firing off a nonsense-laden missive at the audience, almost as a kiss off. The defiant and bizarre lyrics paint a picture of his frustration in his role as teen spokesman. The fuzzed out, cracked and broken dirge 'Love' could be a time travelling cast off from Machina. Synthesizer emerge around the corners here, with Corgan toasting to his "mistakes of cowardice" and justification in the name of love. The flip-side to damaged, damaging 'Love' is the saccharine 'Cupid De Locke', almost insipid in its banal simplicity. To be honest, I've never really gotten this song.
'Galapagos' appears on the surface to be a love song, but close inspection shows its actually about Corgan's insecurity about growing older and irrelevant to his audience, singing literally "Too late to turn back now, I'm running out of sound. I'm changing". 'Muzzle', a loose, jangly alterna-rock anthem, is just as literal, with the opening lyrics "I fear that I am ordinary, just like everyone". It's a good song, not a great song, and a sign that even for someone as prolific as Corgan, a double album can be prone to serve indulgence. Fittingly, the penultimate track on Dawn To Dusk is the nine minute wanderer 'Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans', a drawn out number that seems to be about a variety of subjects. It's a gorgeous, sprawling song, a testament to what the Pumpkins were trying to accomplish on Mellon Collie - it just is a little vague. From the established themes it seems to suggest that Corgan finds relief in therapy and pharmacology. All I really know is that I love the near-two minute intro's guitar layers. They're sublimely played and structured. The final track on disc one is 'Take Me Down', a contribution from guitarist James Iha. Other than some lay-to-rest, sleep to dream elements, there's little relevance to the rest of the album. It's a nice song, but a bit sleepy. Maybe it's supposed to be a lullaby.


Dawn To Dusk, I feel, is just that. It opens at dawn with the soft piano piece. Day breaks and the band launches forth with 'Tonight, Tonight', singing of eventual plans and seizing the day. Weariness and disillusionment sets in, and as night comes we settle to bed after being tranquilized from anxiety and frustration. This is just my take on the first half. I'll post part two tomorrow and see if this holds up as strongly on Twilight To Starlight. 


Stay tuned!