Monday, October 11, 2010

Pop, Pop, Pop Music (Part Three)

I had been trying to write my own songs since before I had started high school, and the output had been as good as one might suspect. I was certainly not going to be in a new Squirrel Bait, Deep Wound, or Old Skull. It wasn't until around the time I turned seventeen that I started to understand how much more easily just plain pop music came to me when I gave up on the punk rock pretense.

Entering college, I had a high-speed Internet connection for the first time in my life. I took the opportunity to explore some music of which I was vaguely aware, but had never given a proper chance. I started downloading music by Tiger Trap, Heavenly, Dressy Bessy, and so on. I also began to listen to the song “Throw Aggi From the Bridge” by Black Tambourine constantly. Finding this music was incredible. It was so much more to me than the punk bands that soundtracked high school. This music energized me, blew my mind. The lyrics could be campy, fun, and irreverent but also deep, philosophical, and sometimes dark. But, no matter what, the music always had enthusiasm; a sort of unfuckwithable compulsion to play whatever song they were playing and move on to the next to have as much fun as possible in dozens of different ways and contexts as possible.

It was such a different kind of feeling finding these bands. Listening to Black Tambourine, Tiger Trap, and Small Factory was like a full-body elation. I felt a connection with these bands I never really had with regular punk rock. It was like listening to pure, unmitigated enthusiasm. Possibly the most important lesson I learned after finding this music was the way in which I had been expecting my identity to conform to the identity I wanted to get from old records and the characters that produced them. What I really needed was music that fit with who I am. The experience of synchronicity between the organic, sincere identity I possessed whether I liked it or not with music that seemed to me to come out of nowhere was almost overwhelming.

This was much more freeing for me than punk rock had ever been. I could feel the difference very quickly in how I was writing music. Now I can write almost whenever I want about whatever topic I want. While I'm still constantly finding new bands and writers to be objects of my jealousy, like Rocketship or the Fizzbombs, I'm also considerably more comfortable in my own skin as far as my writerly ambitions go.

But even more than that, the short-sighted perception of my music collection somehow providing the form and structure of my very being left me constantly trying to match what I thought I wanted to be, and made it more difficult for me to mature and grow up like a normal person. Finding music to complement who I am as opposed to music to use as some sort of scripture for how I should be allowed me to focus on other things. College was a lot of catching up, maturity-wise (although I don't think that's unusual for anyone).

What a fantastic soundtrack, though.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pop, Pop, Pop Music (Part 2)

My history with music is a probably not uncommon one, where the music I was listening to was supposed to somehow be hugely relevant to my identity. So relevant, that I closed my mind (or at least tried to close it) to almost anything else and ignored developing my personality in other important ways if it didn't come up on a Clash record. But somehow it never really seemed to take. The closest I could get to an idea of what I was like was to write my own music and listen to recordings, comparing them to what I was listening to.

Over the course of high school, I sat in my room listening to old Killed By Death compilations and ordering CD-Rs from Hyped to Death records, reading books on punk rock and looking for whatever bands I could find on the Internet. And I tried in vain to write my own songs to match the ones that I thought were so cool. Listening to my old recordings recently, I was actually kind of impressed that the songs weren't quite as bad as I remembered. But it was definitely an awkward take on the music I was listening to, what is now obviously a mixture of the music I was listening to and the music I wanted to hear but couldn't find.

All this time, I had one CD by the Ramones: Ramones Mania. I somehow never really got into them, despite my fascination with punk rock. After seeing the movie End of the Century, I picked up their first seven records and listened to them obsessively. Around the same time, I had been listening to the band Neutral Milk Hotel. These two bands were probably close to the only things I listened to for my last two years of high school. I went from learning Ramones songs to learning the Neutral Milk Hotel songs. At the time, I thought the two bands sounded about as distant from one another as possible. The discovery that the music for all of the songs by both bands were largely the same was an important one for me, and would have an enormous influence on the way that I listened to and understood music.

I spent a year writing songs, now trying to combine my fondness for the tempos and melodies of the Ramones and Neutral Milk Hotel, rather than copy the oblique pseudo-intellectualism of bands like Sonic Youth. It was like I had found the state of mind I should've been in all along. But I didn't have a lot of frame of reference. There weren't a lot of bands I knew about at the time who made this kind of music. I had a couple records by the Apples in Stereo and Teenage Fanclub, but it wasn't the same. I had a Beat Happening CD, but I wasn't crazy about it. As far as the kind of music I was making, I was just deafly speeding into what was new territory for me, figuring out how much you can do with three chords, spare time, and no idea what you're doing.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Pop, Pop, Pop Music (Part One)

It's not unusual for people to associate the music they listen to with certain periods in their lives, or sometimes to reflect on their lives in reference to whatever music they were listening to at the time. It might be a little more obsessive to see your process of maturing or the development of your identity to somehow come part and parcel with the music you listened to, but this is what I do. Recently reflecting on my life and the music I listened to over the course of that life, I started to see how the music I listened to reflected my endeavor to a certain identity and the relief when I found music that better fit my actual personality.

When I started listening to punk rock, around when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, it was the kind of experience that a lot of people have. I felt like I had found music to which I felt I could relate, expressing emotions and communicating ideas I couldn't find anywhere else. Something liberating, something inspiring and exciting. I spent most of high school trying to use my guitar to imitate the sounds and attitudes espoused by bands like Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma, Unwound, the Clash, Nirvana, and on and on and on. My attempts to write angry, jagged, weird songs did not come out quite as convincing as the records I was listening to. I guess the spiteful and melancholic ramblings of the teenage me couldn't even carry much weight with their author.

So this went on for most of high school. Struggling to be abstract, I would take what I knew about music theory and try to contradict it, expecting to come up with something that sounded incredibly cool, as if that's how it worked. And for lyrics I would find inspiration in how miserable I was. Specifically, that was my conscious focus. It would be a few years before I started to understand how much of an impediment a conscious focus like that can be. I would eke out a song or two on a crappy four-track machine every so often and then play them relentlessly, seemingly believing that I would eventually figure out how to make a crappy song great by just playing it over and over again. I'd play the songs, listen to my recordings, listen to records like EVOL and Surfer Rosa and wonder what I was missing.

It wouldn't be too long before I'd just have to get over the difference between who I was and the person I was trying to be when I tried to write those songs. But it would be a little longer before it would make sense to me.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

I Have Neglected This Blog For Too Long

I'm going to start writing here again.

While I get ready to return to writing on a regular basis, I've uploaded two reviews from last year that I wrote while applying to for work as a music critic.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Recently Obsessed With French Music

I think there's just something I like about the sound of the French language. But while it's especially suiting, in my opinion, to weirdo synthpop such as might be found on compilations like BIPPP or So Young But So Cold, there is also other stuff. And there's also just the synthpop.

As we shall see, as I tour French music with no real knowledge of it...

France Gall - "Baby Pop" (1966)

Written by Serge Gainsbourg. Saccharine sweet, catchy yé-yé sung by 18-year-old France Gall.

Charles de Goal- "Exposition" from Algorhythms (1981)

Weirdo French synthpop/no waviness.

(Discovered thanks to post-paranoia.)

Les Rita Mitsouko - "Marcia Baïla" from Rita Mitsouko (1985)

Quirky, bouncy synthpop from the mid-80s.

(Introduced by Dustin.)

And I wanted to post a video by Les Thugs, but "As Happy As Possible" has disappeared from YouTube. Suffice to say, I also like that song.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone - Advance Base Battery Life

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone

Advance Base Battery Life

Tomlab, 2009

With bouncy beats lying beneath mellow, comforting synthesizer melodies and accompaniment, Owen Ashworth's Casiotone for the Painfully Alone gives one the feeling of being in the company of a sympathetic friend in a moment of heartbreak, loneliness, or any number of other disappointments. Ashworth's lyrics and music can play an important role for listeners caught in these situations. While the topic matter is generally sad and melancholy, they are not meant for dwelling and brooding in misery. Themes of loss (“White on White”), nostalgia (“Old Panda Days”), and simple disappointments (“White Corolla”), all leave his audience with a feeling of determination (best exemplified in “Sunday St.” or “Lonesome New Mexico Nights”).

Advance Base Battery Life, being a collection of singles and other non-album tracks from 2004 to 2007, it runs through a number of different moments in Ashworth's career. The disc features a re-envisioning of a song from 2001's Pocket Symphonies for Lonesome Subway Cars (“Lesley Gore on the T.A.M.I. Show”) and other songs which hint at the sound present on his first three albums (“Missoula,” “The Only Way to Cry,” and “Voice of the Hospital”). However, a large portion of the album also shows the direction Ashworth has taken since 2003's Twinkle Echo, including a different version of “Holly Hobby,” which also appears on 2006's Etiquette. And all points in-between are covered. In addition to the plain Casiotone tracks are his recent collaborations, such as one song performed with the Donkeys (“It's a Crime”).

Ashworth's synthesizers are usually understated, sometimes simply acting as accompaniment for the words being sung, sometimes providing a number of catchy melodies and hooks, in and of themselves. Ashworth's singing is often delivered with a “what-else-can-I-say” attitude, reflecting the states-of-mind of the characters in his songs. One might think, initially, that it was simply “blasé;” but, in fact, the inflections are important to convey Ashworth's message. One of the great things about this collection is how it runs a lengthy gamut of the different moods of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. Here, you can find fun, commiseration, and the kind of relief you might normally get from old friends.

caUSE co-MOTION - It's Time: Singles and EPs 2005-2008

It's Time: Singles and EPs 2005-2008


Slumberland Records, 2009

Opening with tinny, rapid chords, followed quickly by thumping drums and then finally fully fleshed out with the introduction of voice and bass, “Only Fades Away” lets you know what you're in for within the first five seconds. Cause Co-Motion's grasp of the immediacy of the pop song is a quality I find sorely lacking in current pop trends. The careful arrangement and repetition of catchy melodies rolling by at a pace which might be described by some as “moderate, but on the quick side,” lends itself easily to enjoyment by those looking not for the voyeuristic pleasure of drama and spectacle, but something more akin to a moment of commiseration with a compassionate soul. It's hard not to like this band.

The songs are short. Exceptionally short, by today's standards. There are fourteen songs included in this collection of singles and EPs, and not a single one goes over the two minute mark. They don't even meet it. Cause Co-Motion have a sort of guerilla-warfare approach to their music. The songs come seemingly out of nowhere and are gone about as quickly, sometimes just as soon as they register in your mind. Although the songs themselves may not be hard to miss, nothing about the songs are hard to miss. The pop genius is immediately apparent. Each song manages to tell a story and convey meanings. Even with the short lengths, they explore and travel through different moods and atmospheres, some songs going from spastic bombast to thoughtful passages. The songs and melodies bounce and sway, leading the listener along with the route the words take.

Delivered with a selfless quality that resembles Beat Happening, the music and performances are inviting to the listener. There's no ego in the singer's voice imposing himself onto the listener. The words are purely honest and sincere, and you're left with the feeling that they're being sung because they must be, plain and simple. No grandiose endeavors or hidden agendas lurk here. It's just genuine passion. But the music isn't without a sense of humor. Despite the typically lovelorn lyrical content, the levity of the music keeps the band away from self-indulgence or unnecessarily lengthy introspection. This collection ends quickly, but it's the nature of the songs' brevity that you can put it right back on and listen as many times as you need in order to get your fill, without ever losing that same excitement you found on the first listen.