A Flaws recording: the Mountain Goats, 2009-11-28

So the very next day after the DC show, I found myself – surprise, surprise – at yet another Mountain Goats show, this time in my usual home base of Philadelphia at the TLA. This time I was fully prepared for awesomeness, and had either brought along or met up with a much larger posse of friends, including a few first-timers, which is always exciting for a tMG show. I’ll probably forget some, but Stephen, Joe, Zach, Danielle, Dan, Alycea, Karly, Alex, Colin, RJ, Rob, Erin, and Paul – thank you all for coming out, sharing a good time with me, and making it even better by your very presence. You are all awesome.

As for the show itself – the sound mix and quality left a bit to be desired, as John’s vocals were way low in the mix for most of the show. You will notice on the recording that it is rather difficult to distinguish John’s vocals in the mix, and the effect was even more pronounced at the venue – the recording actually does a better job of capturing the vocals than my ears had at the time. The beginning of Handball, sadly, is a total washout in the vocals department. By the midpoint of Handball the vocals were turned up, but sadly John struggled for the rest of the show to be heard over both the thundering band behind him and the loyal and enthusiastic audience in front of him.

And speaking of the band – to add to the mixing woes, Peter’s bass appears to be turned WAY up at this show. This show really is, I think, the loudest I had ever heard Peter play at a tMG show. Again, this is not a bad thing, and leads to some amazing moments – just listen to See America Right, and check out the awesome, foreboding, frighteningly bowel-shaking growl of Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace (this performance of which is easily the best of the three shows I caught on this tour). It did, however, cause some problems with the recording – because i was recording with built-in mics and no bass filter, the loud rumble not only dominates the sound of the recording but also contributes to a recording that is decidedly less crisp and more muffled than my DC recording. I did what I could with it, but ultimately I didn’t want to tinker with it too much, so apologies for the somewhat iffy quality of this one. (Hint: it seems to sound a lot better through headphones.)

Other highlights of the show include a rare performance of Going to Michigan, the violin-and-vocal rendition of Going to Bristol, and the surprise second encore of The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton. As before, the show is streaming below and you can download it in multiple formats from the good folks over at archive.org. Enjoy!

Setlist:
Handball
Old College Try
Cotton
Palmcorder Yajna
Romans 10:9
Deuteronomy 2:10
Enoch 18:14
One Fine Day
From TG&Y
Song for Dana Plato
Going to Michigan
Going to Bristol
Hebrews 11:40
Psalms 40:2
Song for Dennis Brown
See America Right
This Year
—————————-
Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace
No Children
—————————-
The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton


the Mountain Goats – 2009-11-28, Theatre of the Living Arts, Philadelphia, PA

Other Flaws recordings on archive.org:
the Mountain Goats – 2005-05-04, First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia, PA

the Mountain Goats – 2005-05-05, Knitting Factory, New York, NY
the Mountain Goats – 2005-05-07, Northsix, Brooklyn, NY

the Mountain Goats – 2005-07-02, Old American Can Factory, Brooklyn, NY

the Mountain Goats – 2005-07-04, Fulton Mall Parking Garage, Brooklyn, NY

the Mountain Goats – 2009-03-21, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Washington, DC

the Mountain Goats – 2009-11-27, 9:30 Club, Washington, DC

the Mountain Goats – 2009-11-28, Theatre of the Living Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Britt Daniel – 2010-01-23, Sound Fix Records, Brooklyn, NY
Britt Daniel – 2010-01-23, Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY

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A Flaws recording: the Mountain Goats, 2009-11-27

Those who know me even superficially tend to know one thing about me: I am a Mountain Goats fanatic. Having been a fan for over 10 years, and seen them 36 times over those 10 years, I tend to have strong and in-depth opinions concerning this band, and I also tend to share those opinions freely, frequently, and at length. That said, I will try to keep my remarks on this recording as spare as I can and let the recording speak for itself.


I went into this show with mixed feelings – this was possibly the least excited I had ever been for a tMG show. While most of the other 4AD material – much of which is often dismissed on seemingly purist grounds by other longtime fans – had endeared itself to me, their new album, Life of the World to Come, had not taken hold. I tended to like the piano-based tracks, which to me signaled a new direction that had started with the Satanic Messiah EP, but most of the guitar-based tracks (barnburner “Psalms 40:2” notwithstanding) just felt uninspired and, worse, uninspiring to me. As much as I appreciated and admired the overall work of recently-added drummer Jon Wurster, the past couple of tours have made the dusting off of older songs awkward, as Wurster seemed to often get in the way rather than helping to propel these songs. Add in the fact that the previous two shows were canceled due to sickness, and all signs were pointing to this being an underwhelming concert experience.

Of course, at this point I should know better than to believe that JD and company would let me down. John’s piano playing, which had seemed so reluctant and unsure at the March 2009 NYC show that marked his first time playing piano on stage at a Mountain Goats gig, had progressed by leaps and bounds, as evidenced by his energetic dash to the bench at the start of 1 Samuel 15:23, rocking out and pointing into the air like he was Elton John or Billy Joel. From that first moment all of my doubts and misgivings were instantly erased, and as you can hear below, the show was fantastic; John was in high spirits and energy; the band, augmented by Perry Wright of the Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers and at times by Owen Pallett (who at the time was going by his old stage name, Final Fantasy), was capable of both muscular force and tender nuance. Best of all, the LOTWTC material worked better live. Finally, I had started to grasp some of these songs and see beyond the polished veneer of the studio versions.

Notably, John did come out during Owen’s opening set to sing a violin-and-vocal arrangement of the tMG classic, “Alpha Omega.” While I did record Owen’s set, Owen’s recordings are not yet approved for hosting on archive.org. I will be e-mailing Owen’s management to request permission to place these recordings on archive.org, at which time I will update this post with that information.

Setlist:

1 Samuel 15:23
Old College Try
Cotton
Psalms 40:2
Love Love Love
Deuteronomy 2:10
Enoch 18:14
Genesis 30:3
Song for Dana Plato
Cobscook Bay

It’s All Here in Brownsville
Hebrews 11:14
Isaiah 45:23
Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod
Song for Dennis Brown
Romans 10:9
This Year
—————————————–
Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace
No Children


You can download my recording of this concert in MP3, Ogg Vorbis, or FLAC formats from archive.org. You can also stream the recording below, but due to anomalies in the way archive.org seems to decode and stream the tracks, i strongly encourage you to download them if you like it, in FLAC if you are able.

Finally, I want to thank DC friends new and old who helped to make the show such an enjoyable experience, including Shannon, Zach, Colin, Neal, Owen, Lexitron, Natalia (although I didn’t get to see you this time around, it was fun looking for you!), and anyone else I may be forgetting.

the Mountain Goats – 2009-11-27, 9:30 Club, Washington, DC

Other Flaws recordings on archive.org:
the Mountain Goats – 2005-05-04, First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia, PA
the Mountain Goats – 2005-05-05, Knitting Factory, New York, NY
the Mountain Goats – 2005-05-07, Northsix, Brooklyn, NY
the Mountain Goats – 2005-07-02, Old American Can Factory, Brooklyn, NY
the Mountain Goats – 2005-07-04, Fulton Mall Parking Garage, Brooklyn, NY
the Mountain Goats – 2009-03-21, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Washington, DC
the Mountain Goats – 2009-11-27, 9:30 Club, Washington, DC

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The king’s new clothes.

A funny thing happened to James Cameron on the way to his retirement. Somewhere along the way, he got confused and mistook himself for an Important Filmmaker with Something to Say™.

He didn’t lose his way on his own, though; no, he was in fact led down the wrong road, given the wrong directions when he clearly should have made that left turn back at Albaquerque. See, Cameron was a perfectly capable director for a certain type of film; The Terminator showed that he had the chops to craft a satisfyingly exhilirating sci-fi action film with an interesting concept and a low-medium-sized budget, Aliens allowed him to stretch out and proved that even when allowed to indulge himself, he still kept the results compelling and strictly in service of the film, The Abyss gave Cameron more license to explore his creativity and ambition, while also providing a retrospectively prescient setting shift to the earth’s oceans, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day was Cameron’s opportunity to really wow the audience with cutting-edge special effects (which still are impressive even by today’s standards, mind you), while also turning his first breakout success into a franchise with a whip-smart concept and tight execution, creating that rare sequel which is at least equal to (and arguably better than) its predecessor. Cameron could have quit in 1992 and secured a legacy that would be remembered and celebrated in filmdom.

After phoning it in with by-the-numbers yet well-executed Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle True Lies, however, Cameron decided to indulge one of his pet obsessions: the Titanic. I can skip over this step of the story, because you all know it. Top-grossing film of all time, Oscars, “king of the world,” et cetera.

The catch is, though, that while Cameron’s “king of the world” proclamation at the Academy Awards ceremony seemed to be too tongue-in-cheek to be sincere, the joke was on us; he was in earnest when he claimed this title. No longer content with being a groundbreaking and innovative filmmaker, Cameron now fancied himself a vanguard of contemporary filmmaking. Soon afterward, rumors began to swirl of a new science fiction project called Avatar. Allegedly, this film was going to completely revolutionize filmmaking and the way we think about film. The common wisdom also dictated that in order for Cameron to be able to fully realize his vision, the audience would need to wait several years before the technology could catch up to his imagination.

In the ensuing years, one could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Cameron had indeed gone into retirement; for a triumphant Oscar winner, his career was intriguingly low-key for the next 10 years. He created a short-lived television series (albeit one that did have at least one minor cultural impact in that it turned Jessica Alba into a household name), Dark Angel, and directed a handful of mediocre underwater documentary films that later proved to be, presumably, on-the-job training in shooting in the IMAX format. It was not until late 2008 that the hype wheels for Cameron’s new feature film project began publicly turning again; early word was that this was a juggernaut that was going to shock and awe everyone who saw it and that would indeed change the face of filmmaking forever. About ten years in the making, Cameron’s Avatar was finally going to see the light of day.

This just about brings us up to the present. During the summer of 2009, the first teaser left many, myself included, underwhelmed and fully prepared to call shenanigans on the whole project. The visuals looked overly synthesized and oddly flat and lifeless, and the lack of any revealing of plot or characterization left the film looking like a flimsy, Hudson Hawk-on-steroids-sized flop. A full trailer with some more tantalizing visuals and further revelation of plot and thematic elements made the film look somewhat more appealing, but critics still seemed to harbor a slightly-more-than-healthy level of skepticism and were by and large sharpening their knives in anticipation of December 18.

It’s unclear exactly what happened at this point, but the end result is that several critics, many of them with their heads typically at least somewhat reliably on their shoulders, began to praise the film. And not just the super-high-priced visuals and 3d filming, but the film itself. The story. The characters. Two prominent bloggers have suggested it is the frontrunner for the Academy Award for Best Picture (and hey, we all know the Oscars are bullshit, but some of us idealists would like to imagine that they still have at least a shred of credibility). Hell, it even won an award for best picture of 2009 already. It’s like everyone gave in, drank the Kool-Aid, and abandoned their skepticism, objectivity and ability to think independently, and bought into Cameron’s self-created myth. (Thank [insert deity here] for critics like J Hoberman – an endangered species!)

You can doubtless tell from my tone where I stand on Avatar. I am going to begin, however, by talking about what Cameron does well in the film, how it succeeds. After all, if you don’t have anything nice to say you shouldn’t say anything at all, right? Plus, we here at Flaws are not in the business of unrestrained hatemongering. (Plus, I figure if I start my appraisal with positive points, I won’t be accused of mindlessly buying into some barely-visible backlash). Technically, this film is indeed a marvel. Let’s be honest here: if one is going to see Avatar, one should do it right – that is, the way it was intended to be seen: in IMAX 3D. The teaser and trailer only reinforces this; on a computer screen, television screen, or even standard movie screen, the film looks flat and unexciting. Seeing it in IMAX 3D, however, is a completely different kind of experience – Cameron has truly created a completely immersive world in which the viewer can get lost. The strange and beautiful flora and fauna of Pandora enticingly dance toward you and draw you in, the color palette is suitably rich without being overwhelming, and even the sound design and mixing helps to entrench the viewer into the environment. This is not so much a film as a sensory experience. This being the case, there is no doubt in my mind that this film will not play well on DVD or BluRay, and to those who bought a bootleg: congratulations, you’ve missed the point and completely ruined the experience for yourself.

Unfortunately, however, this is where Avatar‘s successes end. After spending so much money creating such a beautiful and enchanting world, Cameron either neglected or did not deem it appropriate to populate this world with memorable or believable characters or a compelling or original storyline. Rather than develop actual characters to inhabit his planet (and, seriously, Pandora? I know that James Cameron has never been known for subtlety, but still…), Cameron instead decided to invest even more money into hiring a USC linguistics professor to create the language spoken by the Na’vi. I would not criticize this decision and this added layer of realism that is often neglected or dismissed by most filmmakers if Cameron had seen fit to give his Na’vi lines worth translating into a new language. Instead, we get, as many critics (even those who give the film the highest praise) have pointed out, a Na’vi translation of Dances with Wolves.

Speaking of which, can we talk about the jaw-droppingly astounding yet head-scratchingly perplexing tonal and attitudinal balancing act this film pulls off? It kind of manages to be New Age shlocky, environmentalist, anti-imperialist, militarist, and offensively racist – all at the same time. It’s kind of breathtaking, but not in a good way. Ostensibly, the film’s message is supposed to be one of environmentalism and respect for native peoples and their beliefs, with an anti-imperialist/invasion bent. In the process of delivering this trendy neo-hippie moral, however, Cameron employs enough explosions, violence and destruction to satisfy a hormonal teenage boy’s lust for such things for at least 48 hours. A look at Cameron’s output reveals that yes, he does indeed have a hard-on for explosions to rival Michael Bay, but unfortunately that propensity feels at odds with what he seems to be trying to communicate with this film. The fact that the characters are not well developed means that we only root for “the good guys” because they spend the most time on screen and because the score (composed, surprise surprise, by Titanic culprit James Horner) tells us that we are supposed to. Most problematically, however, is the treatment of the Na’vi themselves. The “bad guys” of the U.S. military often refer to them derisively as “savages,” and we are meant by association to see them as quite the opposite. However, the portrayal of the Na’vi in this film is tainted at all levels by the myth of the “noble savage” that has often dogged Western perceptions of native peoples, and contributes to an overall holistically racist view of this alien species. White guilt and condescension do not add up to equal egalitarianism, James.

There are other problems I have with the film, including the fact that, in addition to the interplanetary racism, the film portrays seemingly the entire American military force as being composed exclusively of white males (with the somewhat marginal exception of pilot Michelle Rodriguez), as well as the need of most filmmakers in general to anthropomorphize their alien creations to a ridiculous degree. I recognize that this is partially the whole “god creating man in his image” issue, but seriously, with the talent and imagination that Cameron obviously has, not to mention the ludicrous amount of capital he dumped into the making of this film, I somehow expect more. All these complaints, however, can be seen as me overintellectualizing the film.

Let me address, then, the one issue I have with the film that is inescapable and not so prone to overthinking: its length. You must understand, I am often something of a sucker for long movies. Honestly, I am. I love me some epics. And here’s the thing – from my point of view, two hours and forty-six minutes is not even particularly long. I am quite used to watching 150-minute films, so really, an extra sixteen minutes should not be a chore or feel indulgent. Remember, I am a fan of both Kubrick and Kurosawa.

Somewhere in the past decade, however, Cameron has forgotten how to effectively pace a film. Between the action and the explosions and the seductive visuals, this film should have flown by, in theory. It should have left me disappointed that it ended, salivating for more and willing to plop down another fifteen dollars to see it again. The last word to describe it should have been dull. Instead, I found that it felt longer than Gone with the Wind.

Let’s extrapolate this a bit further. The film felt shorter than the Ultimate Cut of Watchmen, which is in truth about an hour longer. Earlier this year, I went to see the roadshow presentation of Steven Soderbergh’s Che. That film, I believe, clocked in at four hours and forty-two minutes, almost a full two hours longer than Avatar. It was methodically, deliberately paced, and it included an intermission.

Avatar felt just as long as Che had felt.

This is ultimately Cameron’s failure – he delivered the world that he had promised his audience, but he forgot the two most crucial aspects of a successful narrative film: identifiable characters and a compelling story. While he has changed the face of filmmaking, what he has ultimately given us is a first stepping stone, a building block that may eventually lead to something truly great. As impressed as I am with what he has achieved, I am disappointed in the critical discourse that has found itself entranced hopelessly by Cameron’s illusion, and I find it distressing that all of this mostly unchallenged praise is only encouraging him. It is seeming increasingly likely that Avatar will indeed go on to be named Best Picture of the year, and that upsets me more than I care to admit. It’s frustrating to feel like you are the only one who can see that the king of the world wears no clothes.

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Six inches forward and five inches back.

So, my copy of the new Spoon single, “Written in Reverse,” arrived today on colored 7-inch vinyl, and it is gorgeous, as you can see:


Handling the single, and already eagerly anticipating the release of Spoon’s next album, Transference, on January 19, I began to think of the relationship of 7-inch singles to albums and EPs, and specifically about the place of 7-inch singles in the contemporary, increasingly digitized music industry. While I think that the continued presence of (and even increased popularity of) the 12-inch album and, to a lesser degree, the 10-inch EP in the musical environment has been vindicated to a point where acceptance of vinyl in the mainstream is not a radical concept, the 7-inch presents a quandary. While albums and EPs are collections of songs that are meant to be listened to together, and often play for 15 to 20 minutes per side without the interruption of having to flip the record, singles are another story entirely. I mean, was there ever a time when the single would have been considered convenient? It really is the most work-intensive method of listening to music; considering that a typical pop single traditionally clocks in at around 3 minutes, and sometimes even less, it seems that one would hardly have time to sit down and make oneself comfortable before it would be time to get up and flip he single over to the B-side. Is the continued existence of the 7-inch single simply a byproduct of superficial nostalgia and vinyl fetishism?

Strictly speaking, the more I think about it, the existence of singles doesn’t make sense. It just seems counter-intuitive. Aside from the whole flipping sides issue, there is the simple economics of it. In an age of 99-cent digital track downloads, $10 full-album downloads, and new release CDs often offered for $7.99 at the big box stores, what incentive is there for music fans to put down five dollars (or more) on two songs? Especially in the current economic climate, it does not seem to be a particularly sustainable model.

When one looks at the way the music industry is structured, the very idea of a single (at least in the traditional definition) also appears to be bordering on archaic, and charting the recent history of the single proves to be quite illuminating in terms of how the music industry has changed over the years. At this point it should be noted that I am not claiming to be a music historian, nor is this an academic blog, and so my understanding may be flawed or my explanations oversimplified or generalized to a degree where I miss the point. I do believe, however, that my overall argument, that the single has largely gone from being its own entity to a promotional tool for a more expensive album to an afterthought on the verge of antiquity, holds true.

My look at singles will begin in the 1960s, when it seems that the UK and US music industries had very different ideas of the purpose of singles. Bands such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix Experience often looked at singles and albums as separate and yet equally legitimate entities. It had been common practice (and a practice that was sometimes adopted in the late ’70s UK punk and postpunk scenes, as evidenced by a glance at the discographies of bands such as the Clash, Joy Division, and New Order) to eschew including tracks from singes on album releases on the UK pressings of albums. A single seemed to be viewed more as a self-contained statement in itself than simply a building block for a larger statement or entity. However, the corresponding American releases of these albums, which were often delayed, frequently consisted of bastardized tracklistings, with the tracks often resequenced and some album cuts excised from the running order in order to make room for the more recognizable hit singles which would be used to sell the album to the American market. This is the reason so many early Beatles and Rolling Stones albums (not to mention, notoriously, Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced and the self-titled debut from the Clash) had sometimes drastically different tracklistings in the UK and US pressings.

Moving into the ’70s and ’80s, singles by and large tended to be culled from an album and sent to radio as a kind of promotional tool for the album. Frequently (as evidenced by my own nonscientific “research,” i.e., browsing my record collection), even the B-sides of singles during this period were culled from the album, sometimes in slightly remixed form. Clearly, during this period of heavy AOR, singles were merely used as a tool for selling an album, although some bands, primarily in the UK, continued the tradition of releasing standalone one-off singles.

In the 1990s, the single seemed to enter a golden age of sorts as CDs became more and more ubiquitous (we shall conveniently ignore the “cassingle” trend). In the US the “maxi-single,” which often contained 2 to 5 “B-sides” – the term stuck in spite of the fact that it no longer made any sense – became the standard format for CD singles. Record labels in the UK, however, engineered an even more effective way of wringing money from the record-buying public: the 2-part CD single (later to expand even more extravagantly into a 3-part CD single, sometimes augmented with a separate DVD single and a limited edition 7-inch with an exclusive B-side). Artists such as Radiohead and Björk released some of the iconic multi-part cd singles, often in several different formats across various European territories. A song such as Radiohead’s “High and Dry,” for instance, was released in, I believe, about 6 different formats, each with a different selection and configuration of B-sides and none collecting them all in one place.

Moving into the aughts and the rise of the digital marketplace, the concept of a single has become almost outdated, almost a quaint relic. CD singles have all but disappeared from the shelves, with the live cuts, outtakes, and remixes that previously would have been CD single fodder now being relegated to deluxe editions of new albums or to “digital EPs.” Digital album leaks have rendered the advance single obsolete, although bands will still frequently pre-release one track from their next album digitally as a teaser. With MTV and VH1 basically being reality television channels these days, and with the rise of streaming video websites, video directors are now free to go places that network execs and the FCC would never allow them to go before, and videos are frequently now more a process of artistic statement than album promotion. With the iTunes model of cherry-picking tracks, the labels have lost control of what tracks to emphasize in order to market an album, which would seem to make the process of music marketing more democratic and egalitarian. The trade-off, however, is that the artist no longer has much control over how the package is presented. An album such as The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists, for instance, relies on its careful sequencing and on being presented as a whole rather than piecemeal by track; while this may be an extreme example, it perfectly displays the artistic loss that unfortunately seems to go hand-in-hand with the digital movement.

Ultimately, artistic presentation is the charm of the 7-inch single, and it is something that I firmly believe the digital file will never be able to replicate. Yes, there is an element of vinyl fetishism involved in the 7-inch single. Yes, there is perhaps some misplaced but well-meaning nostalgia, some willful anachronism. But ultimately it is about the music. As wasteful as the constant side-flipping seems to be, there is something to be said for the concise presentation, the self-contained quality of the package. There is a charm to these two songs that someone thought belonged together on a small slab of vinyl. It’s a diversion from the other big, pressing things of the day. It feels special. And, really, when you get all this AND it’s on ultra-cute pink marbled vinyl, really, could anybody with a pulse resist it?
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Don’t let the preachers and teachers and hipsters fool you; there ain’t no rips in the fabric.

There is always danger in writing about the recently deceased. Death tends to bring out the nicest and most noble impulses in people, a tendency that can sometimes lead to patronizing, pandering, or whitewashed, and therefore ultimately disingenuous, retrospectives of the deceased’s legacy. Likewise, death tends to be romanticized and turn neophytes instantaneously and miraculously into the foremost expert on the work of the deceased. I present this blog entry to you with a confession and an acknowledgement. The confession is that I am indeed something of a Vic Chesnutt neophyte; the acknowledgement is that I may contradict myself at times during this entry, because the conflicting feelings I will be discussing are fairly complex and overlapping. Proceed with caution.


On December 25, 2009, Athens, GA musician Vic Chesnutt passed away after an apparent suicide attempt that left him in a coma. It perhaps should not have come as a surprise, but still it did shock and surprise many people. A second confession: I had not thought about Chesnutt in many years when the news of his coma hit the internet. I had known of Chesnutt in the early ’90s as a result of Michael Stipe being an outspoken fan and producing his early albums. I had heard some of the songs off of those albums and liked what I heard, but I had never taken the plunge and actually purchased any of those early discs. In 1996 I purchased the charity compilation Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation – The Songs of Vic Chesnutt, a charity compilation that featured the likes of R.E.M., Sparklehorse, the Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, and Madonna and did more to raise Chesnutt’s public profile than any of his actual recordings ever did. Ongoing idle curiosity about Chesnutt, compounded with my growing interest in Merge Records, led me to purchase my first Chesnutt album, The Salesman And Bernadette, in 1998. Unfortunately, I found that the album, a collaboration with Lambchop and a concept album to boot, never really clicked with me, and I sort of lost track of Chesnutt for the next decade plus.

The news of Chesnutt’s death affected me in an odd way. I had never really felt any close attachment to his music, and the fact that I hadn’t thought about him in so long ensured that I did not have the sudden “he’s gone” shock that so often accompanies high-profile deaths. Rather, knowing the back story of Vic and his relentless medical bills and growing debt (a back story that I will not recount for you, but I do recommend you find out if you do not already know), I felt as if the contemporary health care system and insurance companies had claimed another victim. I do not mean to dehumanize Vic by turning him into a poster boy or reducing him to a symbol for a cause, but seriously, if anybody could serve as an example of how the broken system turns us all into victims, and why it so desperately needs to be reformed, it is Vic. Nobody should have to accrue $50,000 of debt – especially when that person has medical insurance – and basically be driven to suicide. Nobody.

Anyway, back to the music… in the days after his death, I became increasingly curious about Chesnutt’s output. Although The Salesman and Bernadette had left me cold, it was obvious that a lot of people loved him, and perhaps it was time for a reassessment. I went to my local record store and picked up both of his 2009 albums, At the Cut and Skitter on Take Off, which were remarkably released two months apart this past autumn. Interestingly, the two albums could hardly be more different, sonically. At the Cut is an at times densely layered record, recorded with a full band that includes members of Godspeed! You Black Emperor, A Silver Mount Zion, and Fugazi. The band adds an oppressive yet compelling tension and despair to Chesnutt’s rather sparse arrangements, making the album feel more like a collaborative effort than a solo record. Chesnutt’s own guitar playing often takes a back seat to the performances by the band, as evidenced in the aggressive violin drones in the impressive, monolithic opening track, “Coward.” The poignant centerpiece of the record, however, is the less embellished song “Flirted With You All My Life,” which Chesnutt ironically had intended to be his break-up song to death. Personifying death as a seductive lover, Chesnutt details the ups and downs of their relationship while finally coming to the conclusion, “really, I’m not ready.” Unfortunately, this was apparently not entirely the case.

Skitter on Take Off, on the other hand, is a much quieter, sparser affair, much of it played only by Chesnutt accompanying himself on acoustic guitar with the occasional contribution of producers Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkin. Naturally, the lyrics take center stage on this album even more so than on At the Cut, because there are no embellishments to distract he listener from Chesnutt’s words. The result is that, although this album is not as sonically oppressive and agitating as its predecessor, Skitter on Take Off is every bit as harrowing a listen – the bare bones production and occasional clipping of Chesnutt singing a bit too closely into the microphone give these songs a raw, exposed-nerve quality, particularly on pieces such as the grimly finger-wagging “Dick Cheney” and the triumphantly bitter Pyrrhic victory kiss-off of “My New Life.” Even hints of optimism, such as the gorgeously laid-back “Rips in the Fabric,” are tinged with sadness.

The purpose of this blog post was not to offer up full reviews of these records, but rather to explore the effect that Chesnutt’s death had on me and the role that rediscovering Chesnutt through these records played. Properly assessing any new record is always a difficult and suspect task at best; assessing such records in the shadow of the artist’s death, particularly an unexpected death under particularly tragic circumstances, is nearly impossible. I’d like to think that my assessment of these documents is not colored by his death at all, but I know that can’t be true. It’s possible that At the Cut is not as harrowingly heartbreaking as I think it is, that it only sounds that way because I am projecting his suicide onto this. I don’t think this is the case, but only time will tell. In the meantime, if anybody has any suggestions as to where I should go from here in terms of Vic Chesnutt’s catalog, I would love to hear them.
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Revisionism: This list goes to 11.

Well, this is embarrassing. After writing an epic 4-page post as my valiant return to the “blogosphere” (N.b.: I hate that word), I realize that I have made an omission. A major, embarrassing omission. Like, my second-favorite album of the year. Seriously.


My excuse: I used my iTunes as a reference in creating this post. However, I neglected to tag this album with the year. Therefore, when I filtered for 2009 albums, this album did not come up.

With that said, I will first present the amended list (now expanded to 11, because, well, this list goes to 11), and I will then proceed to say a few words over the album that I fell in love with so much that I had completely forgotten that it only just came out a few months ago.

  1. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
  2. The xx – xx
  3. Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs
  4. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
  5. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
  6. John Vanderslice – Romanian Names
  7. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
  8. Vic Chesnutt – At the Cut
  9. The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come
  10. Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
  11. St. Vincent – Actor
I resisted the hype for the longest time. I didn’t know anything about them, but the blog hype and pitchfork adoration was enough to turn me off. I was just not interested. Over time, however, the mysteriously sparse cover started to pique my curiosity. Because they are distributed by Beggars Group USA, a label group whose webpage I visit frequently due to their distribution of the Mountain Goats, I was being constantly confronted with that oddly alluring cover. Finally, one day, I listened to a sample clip from the song “VCR” on the Beggars Group page.

Within thirty minutes, I had ordered a copy of the album from the label.

I don’t know what I was expecting from the xx, but whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t what I got. For all the hype, they seemed oddly unfashionable. The most immediate reference point I latched onto was Young Marble Giants. Subsequent listens revealed shades of the Cure and the Chameleons, some New Order/Joy Division basslines and atmospheres, Interpol-esque guitar lines. The vocal delivery is low-key and somewhat detached, but in a compelling way, as if the detachment is not true disengagement but a defense mechanism. Some of the songs simply ooze with sexiness, and the ones that don’t writhe with an uncomfortable sexual tension between the vocalists that draws you in to the drama. This young band has created a surprisingly fragile, delicate, deliberate, and well-crafted album that somehow feels like a moment that will burn out quickly. As much as I love this album, this seems like a band that perhaps only has this one album in it before it falls apart. If that is indeed the case, then I feel grateful to have been here for it.

Categories: Uncategorized

I’m coming home, I’m coming home.

Hello there, internet. It’s been a while. I’d be lying if I said that I always had a good time during my absence, but I’d also be lying if I said that it was all doom and gloom. I will just say that a good, head-clearing, life-redefining catharsis can be a positive thing every now and again. Now that I am more or less back to being settled after all that, I hope to maintain a more regular presence here (and, hey, maybe even over at my other blog as well!) in 2010.

I won’t spend a whole lot of time, as I’ve already lost over 6 months. There is a lot that I want to touch on, but for now I will ease my way back in by picking up right where my last entry left off and try to give all you beautiful, beautiful people a kind of hastily-written, knee-jerk, and likely shortsighted yet completely honest retrospective of what were, to me, the highlights of the year in music. Before I attempt to rank them, here is a brief, chronological rundown of some of the contenders

  • Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion: Everything I said last time continues to hold true about this album, although as the year progressed this seemed to become a bit less of a standout in my mind. In a way, the move of dropping Fall Be Kind so late in he year, when critics would be finalizing their end-of-year lists, was an ingenious move that guaranteed a strong bump in this album’s status; it gave critics an opportunity and excuse to re-evaluate the album and rediscover what was so great about it. As for myself, I have not heard Fall Be Kind yet, but if it is anywhere near as good as I have heard, I know I am in for a treat.
  • Bon Iver – Blood Bank: This one didn’t make so big an impact on me at first, but it grew on me. Short and sweet, and if you try to tell me that “Woods” is not the best and most inventive use of Autotune ever, then I will call you a goddamned liar. In fact, “Woods” may be my favorite song of Vernon’s. No lie.
  • Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light: Another one that took some growing. While I would not describe its predecessor as fragile, there was a certain stateliness to it that gave it a disingenuous veneer of delicateness. The Crying Light quite simply eschews any pretense of fragility and presents itself as an audacious, bombastic, and stunningly ambitious record that demands to be listened to on its own terms.
  • Various Artists – Dark Was the Night: This was definitely the year of the all-star indie rock collaborative compilation album, and of all the examples, this one remains the first and the best, even if it was eventually lost in the shuffle when the year-end retrospectives came out. You can’t argue with great music for a great cause.
  • The Mountain Goats & John Vanderslice – Moon Colony Bloodbath: These two need to collaborate more often. I would love to see their long-rumored Comedians band come to fruition.
  • Casiotone for the Painfully Alone – Vs. Children: Nine months later (ha ha), I still think the smoother and more embellished production was the right decision for this album. Sue me.
  • St. Vincent – Actor: I sincerely hope that the title of this record is another Arrested Development reference. Geeky pop culture references aside, I have three points to make that I didn’t make last time. 1) Here is where you will likely hear the most compelling and freshest-sounding guitar playing of the year. 2) I DARE you to listen to “Marrow” and not dance. I don’t dance, but I can’t resist the urge to move when I hear that song. 3) Umm, yeah. I’m kind of in love with this woman. That is all.
  • John Vanderslice – Romanian Names: Definitely one of my top five of the year. Everything I said before, or in my recommendation on the other blog, holds true. Rather than repeat myself, I will just entreat you to please read what I’ve already written about this album and, for the love of God, go listen to it!
  • Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest: It cannot be stressed enough that 2009 was, improbably, Grizzly Bear’s year. I don’t know how or why it happened, but I’m not complaining. It’s fun to watch deserving bands have semi-meteoric rises.
  • Rhett Miller – Rhett Miller: I was not a fan of Rhett’s previous two solo albums. I was prepared to ignore this one. Then I saw him live, solo acoustic, opening up for his own band, Old 97’s. I was floored by how good these new songs were. These were genuinely some of the best songs I had heard from Mr. Miller in quite some time. I expected the studio versions to be overproduced to the point of being unlistenable, but surprisingly found the album presentation to be tasteful and appealing. “Like Love” would possibly be my single of the year if the label would see fit to release it as a single. Is anyone listening? Seriously, people: a 7-inch of “Like Love” with a live version of “Another Girlfriend” on the flip. Get it into the right hands and it could be a hit. Screw it, I’m gonna start my own label. Grumble grumble grumble.
  • Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca: I continue to be amazed by this album. Inaccessible artsiness has perhaps never been so appealing. I can admit when I’m wrong about a band (although I’m still not delving into the back catalog just yet).
  • Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse – Dark Was the Night: Besides appearances from two other artists with albums on my 2009 shortlist (The Flaming Lips and Vic Chesnutt), the involvement of David Lynch and the multimedia nature of this project/experiment ensured that it would be intriguing. It’s a shame that the legal grey (album) area of this (non)-release means that most people will never get to hear it.
  • Dinosaur Jr. – Farm: Perhaps not quite as strong an album at the end of the year as it had seemed when I first listened to it, but I maintain that these guys have still got it. As far as reunion albums go, this is one of the best. I wish I could say the same for the new Mission of Burma, which seems like a bit of a misstep to me.
  • Wilco – Wilco (the album): Not necessarily one of their best albums, but one has to admire the cultural currency that Wilco has achieved, and which they use to their advantage most effectively here. Wilco has reached a place where the band can do whatever they please. They have a comfortably sized fan base that allows them to make a living off of music, and that is loyal enough to ensure that wherever the band goes, the audience will follow. This album was not profound, but was a great jab back at the critics who accuse them of self-importance or lacking a sense of humor. The juxtaposition of songs such as the murder narrative “Bull Black Nova” ensure that tension remains part of the dynamic. Oh, and “I’ll Fight?” One of the best songs of the year, I don’t care what anybody says.
  • Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs: This one came out of nowhere. Over the years, Yo La Tengo has consistently proven that it is capable of anything; on this album, it sets out to prove it in the space of four sides of vinyl. Progressing from spy-movie-strings-embellished psychedelia to warm indie pop to Motown bass and organ genre exercises to almost ambient soundscapes, the band here blend disparate sound palettes into a surprisingly coherent, engaging, and fun album. The pacing feels a bit odd with its obviously front-loaded tracklisting, placing the three long and quiet tracks at the very end, but that is ultimately the only criticism I am able to level at this almost-perfect album.
  • Vic Chesnutt – At the Cut: Hyperbole and discussion of the tragedy of his recent loss aside (that is another topic for another blog post), this is one of the most visceral and heartbreaking albums of the year, perhaps of the past several years. With members of Godspeed! You Black Emperor, A Silver Mt. Zion, and Fugazi as his backing band, Chesnutt crafts stunningly haunting and uncomfortably frank collection of odes to pain and death. The fact that “Flirted with You All My Life” was intended to be Vic’s “breakup song” with death and to signify that he was done with suicide attempts gives the album an even more grim and oppressive shadow to an already overwhelmingly powerful album.
  • The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come: I have a complicated relationship with this album. This is my Get Lonely; the album that I just did not (and to this date still do not completely) get. Seeing the songs performed live have helped with some of it, but I still have problems. I have problems with some of the ultra-glossy production touches. I have problems with what seems to me at times like lazy songwriting; a lot of the guitar songs sound like conscious attempts to write a tMG song. Ultimately, though, I recognize that there is something compelling about this album that is pushing me to make the effort to try to get it, which is a sure-fire sign of a worthy piece of art. Even if I can’t keep all of those damned Bible verse track titles straight.
  • The Flaming Lips – Embryonic: I was ready to give up on the Flaming Lips. The Soft Bulletin was, I thought, one of the best albums of the ‘90s, hands down. I was disappointed in Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, but I stuck with them. I flat-out hated At War with the Mystics. It sounded awful and the songwriting – well, I would criticize the songwriting, but I remain convinced that there are no actual songs on there. I was hopeful concerning Embryonic, but cautiously so. I am happy to report, however, that this is perhaps an unprecedented return to form. The album is noisy, scattershot, rough around the edges, and certainly not for everyone. What it reminds me of the most, however, in spite of all the noise and sound experiments and utterly unique touches, is early Pink Floyd – think a cross between Barrett-era soundscapes such as “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive” with, say, Meddle. It’s a completely psychedelic album, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that if Pink Floyd were just starting today, with access to contemporary technology and musical influences, they may have sounded something like this.

There were, of course, other albums that caught my ear and tickled my fancy this year, but these are the ones that stand out the most standing here, almost a week into the new year. And now to rank the top ten:

  1. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
  2. Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs
  3. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
  4. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
  5. John Vanderslice – Romanian Names
  6. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
  7. Vic Chesnutt – At the Cut
  8. The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come
  9. Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
  10. St. Vincent – Actor

As for what I am most looking forward to in 2010, here’s a taste of the albums coming out just in the first quarter:

Owen Pallett, Beach House, The Magnetic Fields, Spoon, Shearwater, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Los Campesinos!, Retribution Gospel Choir

!!!

I have missed you all, and I hope you enjoyed slogging through this monster of a post (4 full pages in Microsoft Word!). I will talk to you all again soon – maybe even tomorrow? In the meantime, I invite you all to weigh in with your thoughts on my list or with a list of your own.

Categories: Uncategorized