Thursday, December 27, 2007

Please Say You Love Me

Um, I guess I should do a year-end best-of list. I've never done one before, except in my head, because, like, who gives a shit? But now that I'm on the Internets I know that my inner thoughts and consumer preferences are public information and that you do care about them, you care deeply. Whom am I to withhold this vital content? Anyway, here's my seven favorite records of 2007:

Animal Collective--Strawberry Jam

I was a little disappointed at first. But then I realized that I shouldn't expect them to make music that sounds like rain and snow and confetti falling simultaneously inside my body anymore. Now they make pop songs, incredibly rich, beautiful, heartbreaking pop songs. I guess that's cool.

Marissa Nadler--
Songs III: Bird on the Water

So lush and romantic, so indulgently gothic, so much gaudy emotion. Its almost embarrassing. But not.

LCD Soundsystem
--Sound of Silver

This music comes from that part of the party when you tell everyone how amazing they are. Also, every single sound, from the perfectly grainy treble of the guitars to the warm electronic percussion, sounds completely perfect.

Yellow Swans--
At All Ends

Each of the pieces on At All Ends begin with a simple melody or texture that grows in intensity, usually morphing into something pretty beautiful and dense. Yellow Swans have transcended many of the cliches of both metal and noise and created some patient, sonically complex and incredibly heavy music.

Magik Markers--Boss

A lot like early Sonic Youth except without the affected post-mod poses. Magik Markers make some seriously fierce, dark, seemingly un-self conscious music. Elisa Ambrogio's performances are pretty heroic and raw.

Growing--Vision Swim

Growing adheres to that same uncompromising sonic rigor as Black Dice, but to much different effect. While Black Dice is thoroughly of the East Coast noise tradition, Growing draws on Earth's droning, Pacific Northwest metal and its wide-eyed, beatific sense of wonder that probably originates in being surrounded by very tall trees.

Panda Bear--
Person Pitch

I know Pitchfork already chose this as their record of the year, but what can I say, it is totally gorgeous. It was my favorite too, certainly because it is formally innovative, with its blending of sampled and manipulated sound, reverb drenched acoustic guitars and Brian Wilson harmonies--but more because Person Pitch seems to render moot all of those formal distinctions. It just sounds like colors and sunlight.

Tinariwen's Aman Iman: Water is Life, Kemalliaset Ystavat's self titled record and No Age's Weirdo Rippers were also awesome. Also, James Blackshaw's The Cloud of Unknowing. FYI.

And nine serious jams from other records:


Lupe Fiasco--"Dumb It Down"
My friend says that Lupe Fiasco is too smart for rap. I like this song.

Tegan and Sara--"Back in Your Head"

Dan Deacon--"Wham City"
By far, the most positive song of the year.

Soulja Boy--"Crank Dat Soulja Boy"

M.I.A.--"Bird Flu"

Li'l Mama--"Lipgloss"

Public Enemy--"Harder Than You Think"
This one is about just doing your thing and staying positive no matter what the media tells you. Or something. I don't know. It makes me so happy.

Spoon--"The Underdog"

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hittin Sevens

Speaking of chanting, I was just lucky enough to see Black Dice at an art gallery within walking distance of my apartment. The art gallery, by the way, is a both completely perfect and totally ridiculous place to see the band. They are sort of the epitome of the art-damaged punk: brainy, NYC-by-way-of-RISD hipster bartenders making electronic noise music. On the other hand, the music is so dense and inchoate and gutteral that the very idea of displaying it like a painting or a sculpture seems wrong. I’ve seen Black Dice twice now and both times it’s been hard for me to believe that their music could actually be performed by people. I would expect it to be exuded from mounds of earth, or washed up by the tide. Or something.

But display it they did, complete with gut-rattling bass and bad-trip pixelated video projections and I couldn’t have been happier. When I moved to New York, in 2000, Black Dice were art-noise provocateurs and, it seemed to me, not much more. But then, in 2002, they released “Beaches and Canyons” on DFA and blew my fucking brains out. The incredibly ambitious aim of that record seemed to be to use the tools of noise music—the mangled guitars, the distorted electronics—and pounding, tribal (yeah, you heard me) acoustic percussion to approximate “natural,” expansive beauty. And its a punishing ride, but by the end of the album’s closer, Endless Happiness, there you are staring into the ocean, the wind whipping at your face. The suggestion, it seems, was that “nature” is a more inclusive and encompassing term than is typically thought. This is the same feeling I get when standing on a street corner in Manhattan, taking in the city’s delicacy and power, its chaos and balance, its overwhelming feeling of permanence and dynamism: that the actions and creations of humans are not excluded from a full conception of nature.

Since "Beaches and Canyons", the band’s drummer has departed, leaving Black Dice an electronics driven three-piece, now lacking the lone acoustic, traditionally naturalistic sounding element. In many ways this change signaled a sea-change in the band’s approach, taking them away from their scenic vistas and toward a more synthetic sound. Their last release, "Broken Ear Record" seemed to validate that thought. It still contained Black Dice’s signature tensions—brutal processed distortion and lilting, curiously melodic guitar; painfully un-constructed electronic disco that opens into these almost beatific passages—but the spacious, pastoral feel of Beaches and Canyons was gone.

Now, I expected that I would really enjoy the show last week, but I was surprised to find that, in a live context at least, Black Dice had dissolved those tensions. It occurred to me as I stood there surrounded by the band’s utterly massive, throbbing swirl of noise, that they had focused their view from nature writ-large to the body itself. In a live space, filled with huge amplifiers and real, breathing people, even their most punishing tones were warm and rich. Things sounded so deep and wide that it really felt as if the sound was actually being produced by my own body, mirroring and amplifying my own internal processes. Every tone that came out of the speakers was profoundly physical and though much of it was overwhelming and uncomfortable, it was also incredibly soothing. Not pain exactly, more the pleasant discomfort of being embodied, like awakening from a deep, midday sleep and slowly coming the realization of being a corporeal thing. And what’s amazing about this, to me, is that these synthetic, electronically processed sounds could have become so much a part of our daily lives as humans and listeners as to feel this familiar and, well, natural. That something so seemingly artificial could feel so fleshily alive (think here, too, about our cultures humanizing of vintage machines—that objects as fantastically futuristic and mechanized as a tape recorder, automobile or electric guitar from the 1960’s could have ever come to seem organic and almost pre-modern is a testament to the way that we are able to naturalize our own technology. Incidentally, Black Dice’s ‘80’s arcade/early photoshop projections play on that same tendency). It is not only that synthetic things can mirror natural processes (something I think most of us are fairly comfortable with), or that Black Dice are tremendously awesome musicians (which they are) but also that our experience, our basic physical experience, has become profoundly mediated by human-made systems. Not only has the natural world expanded to include our mechanized imprint—our very bodies have become deeply enmeshed with technology. The border between the things we make and what we are has become very blurry. We are the world we have made. Or at least that’s what I thought about while shuddering under the shower of noise coming from the wall of amps, happily succumbing to Black Dice’s rough, bodily charms.

My Mother is a Fish

Thanks to the generous iTunes of a good friend of mine, I’ve lately been delving deep into some serious folkways: the dark, arcane worlds of Six Organs of Admittance and Marissa Nadler. Traditional music only in that it taps into a tradition of dark vision and death, replanting in me an appreciation for the sung word, just disembodied enough by repetition or reverb, a perfect reminder that the voice can be just as hypnotic as any instrument. I guess that’s obvious. This is why we chant, right?

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Let’s try to remember the Spring of 2004 if we can. We’re at the Knitting Factory in New York. Are you picturing this? Animal Collective’s sort-of breakthrough record, "Sung Tongs," that campfire chanting acoustic drone-y minor classic, had just come out. Many in the crowd were probably hoping for a return to the band’s noisy, pre-"Sung Tongs" identity. Many newer initiates were likely thinking: two guys with acoustic guitars and hackey-sacks sitting on stools maybe? Instead, the band, in full electric guitar regalia played one dreamily endless set of the as yet-unheard songs that would become their next album, "Feels". It felt like one long, continuous wave of gentle, but also overwhelming and joyous, melody. My friend Bill, a man of few words if there ever was one, described it as “magical”. I am not exaggerating when I say that I wept and held hands with complete strangers.
From that moment—and, for the people who bought Sung Tongs expecting the churning, bottomless pit of ritual sound that was "Here Comes the Indian", likely long before—Animal Collective have stayed one step ahead of their listeners. I mean that in a totally admiring way; the band is restless in the way of most great artists, never content to coast on the strength of previous successes, always searching for new ways to communicate. Although Feels traded heavily in those shimmering electric guitars, underneath was as level of synthetic, processed and sampled sound that served as a sort of textural counterpoint. Those sounds have come to the forefront on the just-released "Strawberry Jam". We hear digital clicks and hums, keyboards, tape loops, drum machines and all the rest. Guitars, if we hear any at all, have dropped way back into a supporting role. In another way, though, "Strawberry Jam" is the most conventional Animal Collective record yet. All of those elements are more polished and less organic sounding than they’ve ever been. And, in fact, they serve not so much as the substance of the music as a means of highlighting the band’s continually developing pop songcraft.
In general, when I read things like the last sentence I just wrote, I tend to have the sinking feeling that something I once loved will start to be a little less distinctive, a little less adventurous. And, in many ways, this is how I feel about "Strawberry Jam". The textures and landscapes on this album are not as rich, nor as original as they were in previous work; they seem to have taken a small step toward “electronic music” and the great, mushy indistinct mass that makes up the majority of that aisle in the record store. But despite all that, and despite my best efforts at disappointment, there are moments on this record that absolutely knock me on my ass. In whatever aesthetic framework they are working, Animal Collective just has that knack for the indescribable, ineffable moment of wonder; for finding those little crystalline pockets of beauty that make matter and time dissolve around you and make you look out at a suddenly brand-new world with your eyes wide, wide open. Avey Tare’s voice has never been this supple and expressive, his lyrics never more perceptive and heartfelt, and a few of these songs—'Peacebone', 'Cuckoo Cuckoo', and especially, my God, 'Fireworks'—well, I don’t really know what to say about them except that they fill my heart right up, over the brim.

For weeks now I’ve been happily lost in the dark hollows of viscous, unsparing instrumental music, a sometimes scary, sometimes enervating place. It’s a place I sometimes go when the world seems weird and songs with words and parts no longer make sense to me. I came to this Animal Collective record in that state of mind, expecting that same atmosphere, that same sense of danger. There is a bit of that for sure, but somehow, through their far-off clicks and buzzes, their strange world of sound, they managed to bring me back to the idea of the pop song, that direct, concise piece of unmoored time that arranges the world in its own image. Pop music comes in strange disguises: the songs of old/dead black men sung by a skinny, anti-social Jewish kid from northern Minnesota; the oblique compositions of an elfin, harp-wielding virtuoso; disco, as interpreted by two robot Frenchmen. The world is fucking ridiculous. We are desperate to communicate. Isn’t it amazing?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Welcome to the Jungle

Hi dudes. Welcome to the internet. This right here is the first post on "Dying on the Outside" which is a "blog" on your computer. In it, I will tell you what I think about things and you will probably wonder how you ever got along without it. You will probably get your mind blown. Here are some things I might "blog" about: things to listen to; things to watch; basketball; what happened on "Jeopardy" today; the veggie burger I just ate; how the clouds look; feelings inside. Think you can handle that? Sweet. This will only happen when I feel like it. For instance, I was going to go see "Transformers" today but at the last minute, my pal and I changed our minds and went to see "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" instead. I'm pretty sure I would have "blogged" about "Transformers" because I have special feelings for Michael Bay and also for Transformers. But "Harry Potter"? Is there much to say about this besides the fact that Harry finally gets to make out and that Hermione Granger still makes me feel a little funny? No. Also for instance, we saw a preview for a movie called "10,000 BC", directed by our friend Roland Emmerich and appears to be about warriors and mastodons and wizards. Will I "blog" about this? Y0ur motherfucking right I will. Godspeed.