Stored up & in Store
Generally, I try to avoid using "I" in my reviews and scarce bloggins. And I've trained myself to dismiss this as an academic holdover well on its way out. But looking back on the amount of Internet-specific music writing I've read over the last year, I notice that all of it bears the mark of the subtle and pervasive ways in which leisure time spent online is increasingly mined for value, how consuming streaming media is made work. While the unsettlingly invasive techniques that colonize free time are held in check by seemingly limitless access to cultural products, the "I" is working overtime to stabilize the lopsided notion that identity is a mystical aggregate of consumer preferences. In this context, the "I" often functions as a guarantee of the kind of transparency it makes impossible.
Granted, there are many more ways to write thoughtful criticism in the first person than there to write an Amazon consumer review; most of my favorite music writers take full advantage of the non-institutional mode of address. I'm fully implicated not only by my participation in this site, but by maintaining accounts on social networking sites and being a regular reader of those music blogs that serve mostly as clearinghouses for press release rewrites. And though enthusiasm is the prevailing mode for much writing about music, this (as John Darnielle reminds us) is not perforce a negative tendency, considering the career-building character assassinations that characterized zine spiel of the late 20th century.
It seems that the function of critics is now up for grabs in a way it hasn't been for as long as I've been following this business. The shift from the factsheets and plain text transcriptions of zine interviews that characterized web 1.0 music data to contemporary high-gloss blogs and a surplus of content-producers is more of a quantitative change than a qualitative one. Because as obviously true as the claim that streaming content has heterogenized music listening habits (albeit mostly among a statistically homogeneous group) is, there's an attendant phantom-limb desire for a sort of centralized meta-blog. Not just to aggregate critical response or blog words, but also to blame for excessive hype and PR newsfeed overload.
There is certainly a tendency among people newly recruited into the world of writing about music, casually or professionally, to think that critical language can only come from other critical language, which is a funny capitalist détournement of academically subversive literary techniques like cut-ups and plagiarism. I don't deny that critics need to get facts right and be aware of the way that artists' discographies are understood and talked about, but certain writerly obligations seem redundant when everything is remembered for you; fact-checking in its extensive sense is thus an exercise in bringing yourself into alignment with ideology, if that word is allowed. This seems to me the face of criticism inside late Capital, facilitated, as it were, by Google. I think this is why I fall somewhat squarely on the side of inspiring sociological overstatement from the likes of Momus (or, for that matter, certain old guard rock crits Greil Marcus) and their ambitiously and productively 'wrong' theses, and why certain exhausted signifiers of Importance have fallen particularly flat on my ears this year. The choices below bear the traces of all the things discussed above, and many others I'm yet to be made aware of.
2007 was the year LA recovered from the creeping drought that started with the slow implosion of SST. And while the bands that gather around the city's focal venue, the Smell, tend to cite back to their hardcore forebears as a major source of inspiration, the music is also some of the least retrograde being created. It's tempting to compare the convergence of visual artists and musicians around the Smell with similar cross-pollinations in other cities (Providence, Baltimore, or Brooklyn, say), but there's a goofiness and openness here that preempts that kind of regionalism. I gather from second-hand accounts that the last 15 years or so was a time of divisiveness in LA's music scene, which makes this new sense of generalized-yet-deep positivity all the more remarkable.
Beyond what's written above, I can't contextualize this band better than has already been done, but I acknowledge the urge. And despite the general nature of the preceding graf, what's most interesting here is how No Age is at once so much a part of their context and totally autonomous from it. What I thought of as weaknesses in their live show are ultimately their greatest strengths, particularly their ability to give each idea exactly the amount of time it needs to make an impression before moving to the next. This album would not be as great as it is if it were really split between the ambient/shoegazey and fully quaking post-HxCx tunesmithery; within and between the songs, these moments contain and anticipate each other.
I don't think there's a phrase that sums up casual songwriting muscle like shredder does for the guitar. Dave Longstreth has whatever that is and, judging by this album's conceit, is duly suspicious of the onanistic pitfalls attendant on hypertalented folks like himself. The band's preoccupation with pop music (as in top 40 radio, not the Indie metaphysical ideal) and the formal constraints and conceptual rigor of classical music are necessary ones and Rise Above, their most satisfying album, is an explanation why. The melodies here have the same sneaky effectiveness as pop, but a truly bonkers melodic range. The guitar lines in particular seem easy to parse but remain on the border between intelligible and unintelligible, Don Henley filtered through West African guitar music.
The most legit criticism leveled against this mixtape sees the way Wayne stacks the pop culture references fast and thick as a distraction from a basic lack of cohesion. The underlying ideas here being: 1) Lil Wayne is blog-rap; 2) this mixtape is a rap safari; and 3) mixtapes are fully-formed, structurally sound pieces of art. As much as I find dialectics entertaining, I'm not going to negate the idea or disavow the obviousness of the slight truth the first two propositions above revolve around (the third, obviously beyond the pale) beyond pointing to more fully realized The Carter III mixtape and everything it anticipates. The great pleasure here is Weezy F. Baby's virtuosity, and this mixtape is a fierce extended toast littered with tossed-off references to Duwayne Wayne, Free Willy, WZUP and Martin, et al., but at no moment does it feel like Wayne is entertaining himself more than his audience. Still, the mixtape as a whole stands apart from the Carter III mixtape because, from first to last (with the exception of the purely obligatory "Crazy") there's an irreducible gap between Wayne's associations and your ability to follow them; even when he leans awkwardly far back behind the beat and gets super whispery, we're still trying to keep up.
If anything, the idea that M.I.A. is from nowhere works in her favor, right? Arular was music for free trade zones, places where national identity is both aerosolized and made painfully physical. No idea in general circulation claims to give a similar cohesion to Kala, but it's clearly the superior record, folding in all sorts of spaces pregnant with non-identity and a fundamental sense of alienation. (Take, for example, the way the "Roadrunner" quote that opens "Bamboo Banger" places Maya in that song's famous car-image of suburban insularity and excluded from it, "knocking on the doors of your Hummer.") Production-wise it bangs ultra-hard, whether it's stuffed with competing details ("Bird Flu") or riding a bare, queasy synth and jacking a chorus by that one band who I think were also from the USA ("20 Dollar").
If Burial's aural surface is a scratched, pitted one in which affect pools and runs, this is its polar opposite: smooth, impermeable, saturated with color. This has more to say than that Burial album about where dubstep is and where its going. The main attraction here, however, lies in just how much space Pinch is able to wring out of super-precise syncopation and a judicious selection of guests, nothing else.
"Someone Great," this album's peak, is the finest moment of 2007. And as po-faced as Murphy's delivery is, this is the track he's been trying to make since forever (the one that "Never as Tired as When I'm Waking Up" narrowly wasn't) and he is rightfully very stoked. The rest of the album is excellent too, but if the debut was largely motivated by record-collector gusto, SOS's "New York I Love You" makes clear this album's all about building myths as a bulwark against a trying present. The piano that opens "All My Friends" is a pointedly nonspecific reference to the weird loft music that flourished in a weirder NYC that chronological-aesthetically extends from Low Life to La Monte Young to 99 Records. It’s a past many non-NYers have a stake in, and one that Murphy knows can never outpace the present in his benign'd city.
The self-titled 2006 album was a critic's favorite because the music was strong enough to bolster the most ambitious theories and still escape total critical capture. Untrue has been the point of entry for a much larger American audience, and stands up to the same level of scrutiny as its predecessors, while also offering as many jump-offs. A few more elements have nudged their way into Burial's production this time, which sometimes feels like warmth, but looks hologram-like and contingent. The best parts here are the deformed, colorful voices he rubs over the grit and static, and the song title "In McDonald's."
From a certain vantage, this could really be any of the major Kompakt releases over the past year: moments here share Supermayer's goofy generosity, The Field's chopped 'n' spooled nostalgia, Gui Boratto's brilliant angles, or even Terre Thaemlitz's squirmy genre play. There's an eerie austerity here that, affectively at least, shares something with the Ghost Box approach parsed by maniac blodders Simon Reynolds and K-Punk. Throughout, an uneasily bucolic atmosphere surfaces via a kind of academically remaindered high German romanticism. It drifts restlessly in and out of audibility, and like the previous examples, it teeters on the edge of parody. In case you didn’t guess it already, dude’s a Marxist.
Like all good former art students, Liars steal. They're not obsequious or clandestine about it: whether or not they have read Our Band Could Be Your Life or Rip It Up And Start Again, they've figured out how to orchestrate their career by studying other bands' career narratives. Or at least that's how I've always thought of them: I don't know quite what to make of this, probably because it's going for a kind of simple power that's more familiar to modern rock radio rather than the Neubauten-informed primitive brutalism of their last (two) record(s). "Pure Unevil" in particular is poised to be the genesis for a whole generation of bands intent on writing songs so good that no one can understand them.
The music contained may seem referent-free but is in practice just the opposite. It's no attack, all gain, meticulous and while noisy, still quite difficult to hear at any volume. It lacks genre-specific form, but isn't exactly formless. A much-needed way out of orthodox noise gestures, and a total creeping bummer for anyone within earshot.
Until Boss, I had the same distant appreciation for Magik Markers that I have for most of the music promoted by Thurston Moore. There are things here I could do without, particularly the post-adolescent sexualized body angst, but as a part of music this powerful it's hardly a problem. Late adopters get a career recap with "Body Rot," and eight other tracks, mostly loping, weird ballads ("Empty Bottles") and lethargic stompers ("Taste"). Boss is the full realization of what MV + EE so completely failed to do with Gettin’ Gone. The idea is not to pay homage to Neil Young, but to eulogize everything in his music that's impossible now. In the process MM exhume a couple of corpses by accident, but this music's appeal doesn't have much to do with precision.
Mr. McCombs will never make the album expected of him; he conducts himself with a non-specific rectitude that guarantees vaguely unsatisfying, well-wrought songs. The charms of predecessor PREfection are shambolic ones; Dropping The Writ draws on similar sources, but arranges them in a fastidiously unsentimental way. The album bears a resemblance to the overstuffed, slightly baroque repertoire of adult contemporary radio, perhaps a coded rejoinder to 2007’s full-scale rehabilitation of new age. As if to counter any doubt as to sources, album closer and highlight "Wheel of Fortune" marries that well-worn Renaissance trope to a cooing, hiccuping and finally devastating chorus.
1. Excepter - "Burgers" (Paw Tracks)
By Brandon Bussolini