What’s Up? (3/2/16)

I’m falling into a vaporwave rabbit hole. What the hell is vaporwave? Good question. Honestly, I don’t even think the internet exactly knows what it is. It’s a genre of music and art that has evolved greatly from its origin point, and in a short span of time. It’s defined largely by 80’s and 90’s nostalgia and commercialism,  and whether artists are embracing or criticizing that differs from case to case. One of my favorite artists used to go by the name Saint Pepsi; his album Hit Vibes is a collection of sampled funk/disco beats, sometimes slowed down, sometimes chopped together — not unlike what a low rent Daft Punk record might sound like, and I don’t mean that insultingly. One of the more popular tracks on the album, “Cherry Pepsi” is just a slowed down version of “BYOB” by Sister Sledge, but looped in an infectious way that required a lot of talent. I know first hand that sampling music is harder than one would think.

Still, as I think about why these stolen funky / elevator music tunes from the past are so great to listen to, I think it’s more about welcoming nostalgic/commercial feelings into yourself and rejecting them. Listening to Cherry Pepsi doesn’t make me want to drink a Cherry Pepsi, in fact, associating the word “Pespi” with a musician takes the power of Pepsi branding away entirely. A fun Pepsi commercial will only make me want to listen to Saint Pepsi’s music, instead of pursuing the product. Likewise the echoey songs of MACROSS and Master Stryker may remind me of 90’s shopping malls, VHS rental stores, and the good old Playstation and Nintendo 64 days – but carrying those memories in your pocket via Mp3’s completely removes the power that nostalgia has over you. When people remember what malls and Blockbuster Videos used to be like, they have this rose-colored glasses thing going on. They think about VHS rental stores once a year maybe, and say “wow I miss those, remember them?” But when you carry music that evokes those feelings, and listen to it regularly, it’s like you have a more well thought-out nostalgia. “I think about those every day, and while you may remember them fondly, there’s something eerily unsustainable about those businesses. If we think long enough about malls, and VHS stores and whatnot, their demise by the hands of the internet is so inevitable — and the internet didn’t destroy those businesses so much as it freed us from them.”

I think I can only go so far with all of my exercise before I face the unfortunate truth that one of these days I’m going to need to go on some diet. I really do mean unfortunate, because damn it, I love junk food. And not like fast food and potato chip junk food, but rather your hamburgers, fries, and cheesey sandwiches junk food. Carbs and fats. And pizza. Oh god I need to cut back on pizza. There’s only so much I can work off with exercise and sooner or later I’m going to need to find a way to cut a lot of meat, a lot of cheese, and a lot of breads from my daily routines. I’m not making any promises because, well:

That never worked in the past. 

All Saint’s Day: St. Vincent’s Big Win for Women in Art-Rock

Annie Clark’s been making waves in the art-rock scene since 2006 under the name St. Vincent.  At the 57th Annual Grammy Awards, she claimed her first Grammy for Best Alternative Album, the first female solo-artist to do so since Sinead O’Connor in 1991. She triumphed over the fierce competition of Jack White, Alt-J, and Arcade Fire, and accepted the award while on world tour in Australia. She’s been touring non-stop since 2014, and if you saw her perform at Stage AE back in April you know how magnificent her performances are. She co-ordinates dance moves while playing guitar and adjusting effect pedals. She’s intense, she’s talented, and she’s out there doing her thing.

St. Vincent can’t be bothered by people who say her music’s weird and unusual—to her ugliness is its own type of power. To write music that challenges expectations and norms, yet keeps you coming back despite yourself, is her specialty. In an interview with  tUnE-yArDs’ Merill Garbus she once said “I feel like every time somebody asks ‘what’s it like to be a woman in music’ the only difference is, you get asked ‘what’s it like to be a woman in music.” She strives for the control of her narrative, to not be fenced in by reporters into being the poor girl in a boy’s industry. It seems she’d rather teach an interviewer a few of her soccer tricks, or talk about that one time she wandered naked through a desert, than follow a gendered line of questioning.

Respecting this, I’ll only say once more how great it is for a female solo-artist to take a Best Alternative Album again. For artists like Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, and Bjork to be nominated multiple times over decades to no avail, and for all aspiring Indie-Rock artists, to see a 24-year draught in female winners come to an end is a big deal. For St. Vincent, the Grammy’s an honor that’s being mailed home so her mother can display it in the living room. For decades we’ve lived in a world where women write the year’s best albums, it’s important for the Grammy’s to acknowledge this, but you can’t put your life on hold for an award show. She has to pack her bags in Australia, do a show in Taiwan, then three in Japan closing off February, before doing a South-American leg in March.

What’s Up? (5/10/14)

It’s been a while. Just a week ago I was in a car on the way to Carlisle, PA – now I’m in New York and I can’t decide if this week away from Pittsburgh has felt longer or shorter than seven days. Lots of sleeping, lots of cleaning, a fair amount of hanging out with friends; a lot of it just feels a little different than normal though. Cleaning the attic feels as important as ever, but I’m also struck with the realization that as clean as I make the attic – I can’t turn it into the living room of my Pittsburgh apartment. The attic has more functions and has every right to feel superior; mini-fridge, surround-sound, desktop computer, consoles – but in Pittsburgh most people just walk over to hang out (so it feels more casual?) and they’re more okay with just sitting and talking instead of always playing games or something. I’m getting ahead of myself though, it’s only been a week and I’ve only seen game-oriented guy-friends – and the attic is looking damn fine, or as well as it could at least.

The thing I’ve been spending the most amount of time on, is making music. I’ve spent probably over ten hours this week working on a single song that’s not even three minutes long yet. It feels amazing. It started last Friday, 5/2/14, as I was listening to an R&B station, when Kool & The Gang’s “Summer Madness” (1974) came on. It’s a song 40 years old, but I fell in love with it – and was inspired to use it as the base layer, as a sample, for a new song. I’m not sure what I’m calling the song yet, but it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve worked on in a long time, music-wise.

I don’t have a lot to show for the work, music-making takes a lot of time, and like I said, over ten hours in I don’t even have three minutes of polished material yet – it might not produce the most amount of product, but the process is the most rewarding of all arts without a doubt. Writing. Art. Music. They all take time, they’re all wonderful uses of time; but where a great paper and a great piece of art can be knocked out in a day or two – I just can’t do that with music yet, not on a computer at least. I can pick up a guitar and play something nice, or improvise a nice tune on the iPad or Korg, but a song – a polished song – that takes time for me.

Queens of The Stone Age’s “…Like Clockwork” (2013)

It’s been six years since Queens of The Stone Age released “Era Vulgaris” back in 2007. Now they’re back, and it’s awesome. I last “heard” front-man Josh Homme back in 2009, on Arctic Monkeys’ “Humbug” which he produced. Coincidentally, Queens of the Stone Age are touring Australia and New Zealand this coming March with another band I last heard in 2009, Nine Inch Nails.

Q: In a year of comeback albums; where does Queens of the Stone Age’s “…Like Clockwork” (2013) fall?
A: Somewhere near the top.

The concise ten-track album sounds different than Queens of the Stone Age’s past material, in a good way though, in the way that a band should experiment, change, and improve over the course of six years. The band has always had a broken-machine-like quality to their sound; something about the heavily distorted guitars staying on such impeccable timing sounded like machinery, but in deviating from the timing, finding funky, catchy rhythms, and dissonant sounds, that’s where Queens of the Stone Age finds their appeal. Not unlike the robotic duo Daft Punk that happened to find their humanity in 2013, Queens of The Stone Age sounds more alive than ever here on “…Like Clockwork.”

“Kalopsia”  starts off the second half of the album with the pulse of a breathing machine. And perhaps Josh Homme’s time with Arctic Monkeys was a learning experience as well as a mentoring of sorts, as the peaceful piano and harp-like heavenly guitars paired with the prettier notes of Homme’s voice seem more out of Arctic Monkeys’ playbook than Queens of The Stone Age’s. Of course, everything beautiful falls apart, and the album’s thematic battle between hope and despair wages on, with the band’s old dark sounds (slightly-off guitars, distortion, unrelenting noise) clashing with the new sounds (pianos, falsettos, acoustics, orchestra).

From the album’s third track: “The Vampyre of Time and Memory”
“I’m alive – hooray! / You’re wrong again / ‘Cause I feel no love”

“My God Is The Sun” the fifth track on the album is a personal highlight for me. Outside of the thematic elements of the album, the song is catchy, has a really nice rolling bass, an energy you can really feel, drum breaks; the kind of track that I can see myself playing intensely along with on guitar in the privacy of my own bedroom. I spent so much time playing along with tracks from “Era Vulgaris” (2007) and “Songs for the Deaf” (2002), and I’m glad to hear that “…Like Clockwork” will give me the same emotion-venting satisfaction.  “Smooth Sailing” finds a funky rhythm after a malfunctioning electronic introduction, and “Fairweather Friends” determines that gossip, drugs, and snakes are the friends that get us back into bed.

Title song “…Like Clockwork” hits you with the heavy emotions and really shows off all of the good things that Queens of The Stone Age have have learned to do over the years. Josh Homme almost sounds like Damon Albarn, in the album’s conclusion, and the song just encapsulates the feeling of surrender so well. It really captures the theme I was getting at earlier, that I think you can find through the album, everything beautiful and quiet about the beginning gets sledge-hammered by the familiar sounds of the band’s past music, and when the song returns to the beautiful, it’s not without the ominous march of the noise behind it. The friends that have told me that “…Like Clockwork” might be the best Queens of The Stone Age album might just be right, though I’m not going to start ranking things, I have to say – it’s a damn fine album.

Arctic Monkeys’ “AM” (2013)

I’ve listened to Arctic Monkeys roughly since 2005 or 2006. A lot was happening in that time: I got my an iPod Video, and made a lot of dumb purchases on iTunes. I made lots of one-off single purchases of songs I don’t think I have stored on any devices anymore, I bought South Park Season 10 digitally so that I could watch the Cartoon Wars episodes, I bought the Season Two finale of Lost. I started telling people that I liked “Alternative music,” whatever that means. I listened to and bought a lot of Bloc Party and Arctic Monkeys, I started surrounding myself with anything that iTunes labeled as “Alternative” and came from the U.K. It was a great time to be a fan of Arctic Monkeys because it felt like they were releasing a Single or an EP every few months, though that meant I had no reason to buy their first album “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” (2006) which featured most of the songs I already owned. Wisely “Leave Before The Lights Come On” (2006) didn’t feature any tracks that spoiled that surprise that was “Favourite Worst Nightmare” (2007) which I enjoyed. But in the time between 2007’s “Nightmare” and 2009’s “Humbug” my love for Arctic Monkeys cooled. In the midst of developing my love for artists like Beck, and They Might Be Giants, my music tastes shifted in such a way that the pure energy of the early Arctic Monkey’s catalog wasn’t my thing anymore. Arctic Monkeys’ “Humbug” (2009) reflected this shift in my musical taste, by showing that the band had the capacity to show down, and get dark, with the help of Queens of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme. I neglected to listen to the band’s fourth release, “Suck It And See” (2011), but now that 2013 is coming to a close, I thought I’d give the band’s latest and commercially greatest album had to offer. After this lengthy pretext, and without further adieu, this is what I thought about “AM” (2013).

It’s hard to say how much the band has changed in the last four years, since I’m missing an entire fourth album, but roughly speaking, “AM” sounds a lot like “Humbug,” and I still don’t know what to make of that observation. On one hand; I think it’s cool that after going years without listening to the band that they still sound familiar to me, on the other hand I was expecting something more after all of these years, and after all of the noise about “AM” being the band’s greatest commercial and critical success.

Sonically the album explores places the band’s been before; guitars in the fat of the fuzz and thick bass lines, but the band reaches uncharted territory by including pianos, organs, octave pedals, and a Blood Orange-like amount of plucky, reverb guitar parts. “One For The Road” stands out vocally, as Josh Homme’s backing vocals are chilling underneath the fast tongue of Alex Turner. Thematically, the first half of “AM” feels largely on edge, creepy, cool, dark, that sort of thing. I was getting tired of it by track five, “I Want It All” and it just so happens that track six is where my opinion of the album starts to turn around.

Arctic Monkeys have always done beautiful well, and “No. 1 Party Anthem” is no exception. Their brand of sleepy guitars, with Turner’s rocking crib of a voice, have always been amazing – but they’re the reason to come to “AM,” the highlight, the thing that Arctic Monkeys have taken to the next level. “No. 1 Party Anthem” and “Mad Sounds” following it, pierce the dark rain clouds floating above “AM” with hope, and light.

“They make you get up and dance, yeah they make you get up, out of nowhere somebody comes and hits you with an, Ooh la la la la”

This mid-album burst of energy is put to good use, launching into the funky number “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and the return of Homme in “Knee Socks” before tying the knot of the album, thematically. Arctic Monkeys started by asking “Do I Wanna Know?” (a catchy opening song) and followed up with “R U Mine?” (and although it looks like a twelve-year old’s text, the song broached the dark and mature). By “Knee Socks” we were in the midst of assumptions, break-ups, asking what could have been, and so to close the album on “I Wanna Be Yours” feels right, like the last step of the album’s arc – starting with the desire to possess, and ending with the desire to be possessed.

I’m glad Arctic Monkeys are still around and making music. “AM” was a good listen; it reminded me of what I loved about the band, and showcased how they were developing their strengths. But without knowing what “Suck It And See” sounds like, it’s hard to say whether the band is stuck in gear, or whether this fifth album was just a return to style and themes of old.

Jolt Cartridge & Volt Cartridge

On March 10th, 2011 I published Jolt Cartridge onto my Soundcloud page. It was an odd little number, operating at 180 BPM, and I didn’t think much of it. Unfortunately, I must have thought so little of it that I managed to lose all of the original song data, save for the drum parts. Have a listen.

Fast forward to Sunday, December 15th 2013: when, for some reason I’m inspired to remake Jolt Cartridge. The original was made on an iPad using the BleepBox app, but since then I’ve taking to making music with FLStudio. The remake follows the same drum pattern, but my attempts to replicate the original sounds and melody of Jolt Cartridge resulted in an entirely different song, Volt Cartridge. It was published last night on December 16th 2013.

It’s a slapdash production, put together in a little over 24 hours, but still, I thought this attempted remake would be an interesting first post in the Music Portfolio category of stories.