Category Archives: Music

Self-Titled Eponymous: Reggie Watts – Making A Positive out of a Negative

I’ve tried to write the introduction to this review four times, deleting and revising my attempts to introduce the uneducated to Reggie Watts. I give up. It’s impossible to truly explain Reggie Watts in any kind of condensed, summarized version. He stands for so much, while also standing for nothing. He’s hilarious but unfunny in the most intentional and unintentional ways. He’s a genius composer and skilled beatboxer. And nothing about him makes any sense unless you want it to.

With the release of his newest standup/music CD, Why $#!+ So Crazy?, we finally have a document that’s somewhat representative of the improvisational, nonsensical music/comedy act that Watts has been crafting since 2004. Firmly based in jazz and hip hop, Watts’s live show consists of him beatboxing drum patterns, basslines, and harmonies one by one, looping and sequencing them with a delay modeler pedal to create the musical backdrop, before unleashing a stream of consciousness rant of nonsense words and sounds in the form of an abstract emcee or beat poet. And strangely, each song builds, swells, and moves to crescendos, resulting in fully formed musical pieces. There is a method within his madness, and the result is maybe the most pure representation of how purely powerful the elements of music can really be, both individually and collectively.

Why indeed?

Watts’ music is a testament to the exploration of negative space musical elements; specifically, the non-obvious (and some would even say unimportant) parts of “normal” hip hop, or even general pop music. For instance, take a normal rap song. You actively listen to a song to hear (a) the actual lyrics that the emcee says; and (b) the overall texture of the beat that’s been preproduced to meld with the rapping. You don’t care about how the beat was created, you don’t really listen to the grunts or the sounds that a rapper says in between the words. You don’t care about the moments in between the words, the spaces in between the sequences of the beat. You want a fully formed product. Sure, you can always engage in deconstruction if you want, but for the most part, you are listening to the song as a whole, unconcerned with the elements and the parts that are literally there to fill the space in between the more important or meaningful parts of the song.

Watts comprises songs full of those unimportant noises and sounds, those grunts and nonsensical babbles, that are usually there to fill space. He creates the beat piece by piece for you, to the point where you listen to the song as a collection of elements, rather than a song as a whole. You don’t even notice that you’re bobbing your head, so those moments where Watts throws a conventional music moment at you (a beat drop, a hook or refrain), your mind has to cycle back around to the realization that you are actually hearing something enjoyable as a whole, not just fascinating or impressive in the elements he lays out in front of you.

That isn’t to say that Watts doesn’t have things to say. His studio single, “Fuck Shit Stack” is an over-the-top celebration of crude language that slowly transforms into a scathing indictment of the childish tendencies of rappers and hip hop culture. Buried deep in “A Future in the Future” lays a dense rant against the cyclism and futility of technological improvement, told in the completely insignificant metaphor of candy wrappers making noise during movies. “Rainbows” is a simple story of a drug deal, formed as a love ballad to the ritualistic tendencies of users. And the gorgeous R&B-like “Social Construct” is a drug-infused existential exploration of daily life. And to be honest, I could probably write this review ten times, and attribute ten different meanings to each of these songs.

The songs are as meaningful and profound as you want, like all true art should be. Regardless of what Watts originally meant in creating the songs, they exist in the cultural consciousness and become what the audience wants it to be. And in an era where pop music consumption is so passive and lifeless, it’s been a thrill to have something to sink my teeth into, without being unenjoyable to wade through (see: lots of jazz). At any time, you can turn your brain off and enjoy the beautifully crafted beats, or listen to Watts’ gorgeous melodies, or, like I’m sure Watts intended, you can just sing along to the chorus of “Fuck Shit Stack,” which is way more fun than I really care to admit.

The comedy aspect of Watts’s style is more perplexing. It’s no surprise that Watts won the 2006 Andy Kaufman Comedy Award, as his comedic stylings in many ways mirror the almost antagonistic way that Kaufman treated his audience for the sake of humor. Watts doesn’t directly antagonize, but often phases in and out of accents and voices, creating characters and telling jokes that don’t have punchlines in between his songs. Meanwhile, there are moments in his music that are simultaneously hilarious and borderline disturbing, such as the ending rant on “Get Your Shoes On,” in which Watts recreates a fight between a man and a woman trying to get out the door to go out for the night. Filled with hilarious lines, it builds to the man yelling furiously for her to “get her motherfucking shoes on.” You laugh because it’s all you can do; all while feeling like the artist could be funnier if he wanted to, but simply has no interest in being conventionally hilarious in the way we expect him to. And believe me, I mean that in the most complimentary way possible: Watts is a fearless performer who has pulled legions of fans into his sphere, forcing them to recognize the beauty and genius of his music and style. That is the hallmark of a revolutionary artist.

The first time I was exposed to Reggie Watts a few years ago, I was convinced I had just seen one of the greatest performances I had ever seen, even though I couldn’t figure out why. My friend turned to me and simply yelled in desperation, “What is he doing?!?!” Over time, I’ve come to understand the reasons why I love him so much, and watch with delight in seeing so many other people starting that journey in understanding why he’s such a fantastic performer and creative talent. It’s not easy; and for what it’s worth, I’m glad there aren’t more people doing things like Reggie Watts. I think we’d all burn out pretty quickly. The world only needs, and perhaps can only handle one Reggie Watts at a time. But thank god we’ve got the one.

“Fuck Shit Stack” video:

Matt Wilson Formulates Your Opinions About Music: Sleigh Bells, “Treats”

Brooklyn noise-rock duo Sleigh Bells sure picked the right title for their debut album. Not because it’s necessarily a treat to listen to it, but in that it’s essentially the musical equivalent of the sugariest or sourest candy you can think of. At first, it’s a sensation you’re not really used to, kind of exhilarating even in its discomfort. But keep ingesting it and it’s not long before you’re as sick as you can be.

Late last year, I downloaded the Sleigh Bells tracks that took the Internet by storm and I got a kick out of them, especially the aural assault that is “Crown on the Ground,” an unabashed beast of a track that’s more about distortion than it is singing or instrumentation.

And I’ll just get this out of the way right now: It’s the best track on the album by far. It’s also basically unchanged from the free demo versions that were floating around all over the web in the last quarter of 2009, as are all the other tracks that were released around that time. There may be a re-recorded vocal track here or an overdub of a guitar track there, but the reports that Sleigh Bells were going to re-create those songs from the ground up were quite overstated.

The most changed of the tracks, “Kids,” has been all but ruined. An echo on the vocals make the near-unlistenable and added-in screams just make the whole exercise unpleasant.

Speaking of unpleasant, many of the not-before-heard tracks simply push the same buttons, repeat themselves or get lulled into conventional “Pure Dance” as-seen-on-TV crappy techno territory. The worst of the bunch, “A/B Machines” will be one of those songs they use to lure terrorists out of hiding one day.

Sleigh Bells’ original handful of downloadable tracks showed a hell of a lot of promise for a new sound that mixed hard rock and thundering breakbeats, contrasted with sugary-sweet pop vocals. One day, if they can manage to hang around longer than their flash-in-the-pan blog band bretheren, they may realize their potential.

But this ain’t it.

You think: It’s pretty disappointing.

Self-Titled Eponymous: Arizona’s Got Beef: The Music and the Message

In 1991, Public Enemy released a song called “By the Time I Get To Arizona,” an angry, incendiary track in which Chuck D described a fictional assassination of then real-life governor of AZ, Fife Symington, III. The anger originated from AZ’s failure to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as an official state holiday. In 1990, a referendum supporting the recognition of MLK Day failed, due in no small part to the governor and other legislators’ staunch opposition to the citizen’s ballot initiative.

Almost twenty years later, AZ is in the news again for similar reasons: a hot-button political issue has again raised the ire of hip hop artists. This time, governor Jan Brewer has signed an immigration law that allows police officers to detain people they suspect to be undocumented immigrants, and demand to see official documents. Many have called this law “legalized racial profiling” against the Latino/a community, an ethnic group that makes up a large percentage of AZ’s population, as well as a growing percentage of America’s population as a whole.

And like in 1991, hip hop has responded. Artists Queen YoNasDa, DJ John Blaze, Tajji Sharp, Yung Face, Mr. Miranda, OCean, Da’aron Anthony, Atllas, Chino D, Nyhtee, Pennywise, Rich Rico and Da Beast have remade Public Enemy’s historic song in a show of opposition to the law, reigniting the anger and political atmosphere that Public Enemy’s song helped create almost two decades ago.

It’s easy to forget that hip hop used to be one of the more convincing and necessary hydraulic levers in our culture’s socio-political system. Hip hop often addressed a lower economic strata, and with that context came a demographic that statistically had less formal education, less political activism and overall less general awareness of personally relevant domestic issues. For the ’80s and early ’90s, hip hop admirably filled this gap, and spoke in a way that made that demographic not only want to listen, but also act on the things they were being educated about.

And so, when crack/cocaine was on the rise in the ’80s, Melle Mel and Kurtis Blow released “White Lines” as an anti-drug dance anthem. When AIDS became an epidemic, KRS-One released “Jimmy,” informing kids to use condoms. And when police brutality was on a rampant run, Ice-T released “Cop Killer,” bringing the issue not only to the attention of an already angry population, but also straight to the doorstep of Washignton, D.C. Artists like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul helped spread a positive message to an angry youth, while the X-Clan and Public Enemy helped spark the Afrocentric movement that put a generation in touch with its heritage for the first time. Politics have always been present in hip hop, and the convergence of the two things often produced important and meaningful results, even if those results were often bathed in controversy and contention.

As Chris Richards of The Washington Post succinctly put it:

But isn’t that the beauty of both hip-hop and American politics? Opinions run hot. Mud gets slung. In a crumbling music industry where survival often depends on playing nice, hip-hop is not afraid to push envelopes.

In an era where popular music is so utterly devoid of importance and meaning (including currently popular hip hop), never before has there been such a staggering gap between the upper ends of meaningless pop drivel and the lower dregs of obscure, socially conscious music. Music and message used to be one and the same, whether you were Woody Guthrie in the ’40s or Neil Young in the ’80s. It was possible to be successful while contributing a substantive message to those who only wanted to turn on their radios to ignore. The message was there, ready for acceptance when you chose to notice.

Hip hop is no different. There was a time when Public Enemy was both one of the most popular groups around as well as one of the most respected because they were a group that had something important to say. Today, it’s almost impossible to even conceive of an artist succeeding solely on the fact that he or she has a message to say. The AZ law is just one of a multitude of reasons why it’s more important than ever that we get our medicine with our spoonful of sugar on the radio.

In a genre of music that actually forces you to say something before you can say anything, it’s heartening to see some hip hop artists using their talents and clout to speak out on an issue that is completely worthy of a debate from all people, most notably those who it affects the most. Music doesn’t always have to be important; I appreciate a good party track, I like to have mindless power pop to sing along to in the shower. But one look at the Billboard, one scan of the radio, you’d go hungry looking for anything substantial to chew on, other than a choir of country artists singing about how great ‘Merica is. We deserve more than that; and music deserves more from us.

And as for the law itself, you know how I feel.

Eugene records & performs hip hop under the alias Adam WarRock.

Matt Wilson Formulates Your Opinions About Music: Broken Social Scene, The New Pornographers, The Hold Steady

The summer music season arrives today with the release of a slew of new albums from big-name pop acts competing for your download or disc dollar. With all that new music on the way, I thought I’d change things up a little bit and do three shorter reviews in place of my usual single bimonthly review.

You’re welcome.

Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record

I really wanted to like this album. I did. Broken Social Scene’s previous record, their self-titled 2005 effort, is something I still listen to now.

This album, I probably won’t be listening to even next week.

As I was spinning through it for this review and taking notes, I couldn’t even think of very much to write down about it. For a couple of the tracks, all I could manage was an “eh.” A few others got an “OK.” I wrote down “pretty” to describe certain sections of some songs. But none of it really grabbed me. Where was the energy of this huge collective’s last two records? It seemed to have been sapped away.

I don’t know what this says, but my favorite parts of this record are the ones where nobody’s singing. The only really worthwhile, energetic track, “Meet Me In The Basement,” is an instrumental. “Ungrateful Little Father” ends with a nice instrumental bit, too.

The only other tracks worth mentioning are “Water In Hell,” which sees BSS again channeling indie rock heroes Pavement, and “Me and My Hand,” a stripped-down, tongue-in-cheek ditty about just what it looks like.

If only the rest of the album had shared that inventiveness.

You think: It’s worth streaming once, but not much more than that.

The New Pornographers, Together

The New Pornographers are one of my favorite groups of the last decade, and I’d hold up their first two records to just about anything else you could throw at me, so it was a bit of a disappointment when their last record, Challengers,wasn’t quite up to their standards, despite a couple of effortlessly catchy tracks.

But now I see that that record was merely a step along the way to this one, the group’s full realization of their evolution from power-pop jangle makers to full-on anthemists.

The powerful sound the NPs put on display here, especially in tracks such as “Crash Years” (one of my nominees for track of the year so far), “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk,” and “Daughters of Sorrow,” is one chief songwriter Carl Newman has been crafting for a while on his solo albums, but the contributions of Neko Case, Dan Bejar and the rest of the band really flesh out that kernel here.

That said, the album does include a couple misfires — notably “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco,” which veers away from pop bombast in favor of a bluegrass sound that doesn’t really agree with the band, and “Silver Jenny Dollar,” one of Bejar’s songs, which sounds a little too much like his other contributions to previous albums. (Though another of his tracks, “If You Can’t See My Mirrors,” is a definite step in the right direction.)

Even so, this record stands to shoot the NPs into the echelon that Case has moved into with her own solo work, and they deserve to be there.

You think: It’ll probably slip into your top five this year.

The Hold Steady: Heaven is Whenever

Generally, when I think about The Hold Steady, I tend to think of them as a fun band. You know, hanging around in bars, slinging around beers, laughing a lot and singing songs. When I saw them live a couple years ago at a festival, they were just so happy to be there. It was infectious. Craig Finn and Franz Nicolay and the rest were just having such a great time up there, you couldn’t help but feel the same way.

Now, Franz has left the band, and, as much as I hate to say this, it just doesn’t seem as fun anymore. Their other albums felt like a party. This felt like a slog.

The very first track, “Sweet Part of the City,” comes out of the gate sounding like a Led Zeppelin rip-off, which is not exactly what you want to hear from your favorite neighborhood bar band, and subsequent tracks alternate between a sound something like mid-80s Van Halen, Motley Crue and, weirdly enough, early-00s pop punk, with some lyrics about some kids who want to have fun, kinda maybe, thrown in.

The pop-punkiest track of the bunch, “Hurricane J,” actually does pick up near the end, and the band manages to sound a bit like their old “Boys and Girls in America”-style selves, but it doesn’t last. By the next-to-last track, “Our Whole Lives,” The Hold Steady’s sounding a bit like an impression of themselves.

Much like Broken Social Scene’s effort, THS doesn’t seem to have much interest in trying anything fresh until the last track, here titled “Slight Discomfort.” Finn’s voice here takes on a creepy, ominous vibe with some well-used repetition and the guitar sound is really dark and haunting. It’s not exactly fun either, but it puts on no pretensions that it should be. It’s maybe the most adult song the band has made, and in a good way. Let’s hope the next album sounds more like that.

You think: It’s worth streaming once, but not much more than that.

Self-Titled Eponymous: Post-Racial

Unless you lived under a rock in 2008, you probably heard the term “post-racial” used in reference to President Barack Obama’s candidacy. The term refers to the fact that his being black was for all intents and purposes a non-issue. This, in running for President of a country that only four decades prior was still segregating schools on the grounds of race.

Obama’s viability and eventual success gave credence to a sea-change in our public consciousness, that we had moved past, or beyond the era where race was the first and foremost thing that needed to be both dealt with, and then ignored. In other words, it wasn’t about electing a “black president” as much as electing the forty three men before him wasn’t about electing a “white president.” He was judged first on his own faults and merits. And whether you believe it was an historic step towards doing away with racism or a non-starter of an issue, it was undeniably a step in the right direction. However big or small you believed it to be, that’s for another discussion entirely.

So is race still a big deal in our culture?

Duh. Of course it is.

But think about this question: does race still matter when it comes to hip hop? Having its roots in black culture, the genre has only been around for thirty years or so. And it’s questionable whether race or skin color is still a legitimate issue in terms of acceptance in the insular rap community or the mainstream audience. It used to be if you were a white rapper back in the early ’90s, you were seen as simply being a white kid who was trying to be black, or in the case of a novelty like Snow or Vanilla Ice, a joke.

Even well respected white rappers like MC Serch of 3rd Bass dealt with heat from the likes of artists like the X-Clan, an afrocentric and militant all-black group. The pejorative term “wigger” was coined to describe, well, white kids acting fill in the blanks, and with it came a deluge of accusations that once again, like rock n’ roll and blues and jazz before it, the white man was simply co-opting the black man’s culture.

That was almost twenty years ago (3rd Bass’s Gas Face was released in 1989), a full decade before Eminem released The Slim Shady LP in 1999 and the whole world changed. For the first time arguably ever, a white boy was spoken about as one of the best emcees alive, and for good reason. Once you got past the voice, the persona, and well, the horrific debut single “My Name Is,” you began to hear a flow and delivery that had a legitimate claim to the GOAT crown that so many rappers (namely black ones) had sought to hold. More notably, it was a crown that white rappers, as few as there were in the public eye, never tried to grab. Sure, we all love the Beastie Boys, but would any of you declare that AdRock was one of the best rappers alive? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

If we say that the “modern” era of hip hop began sometime in the early ’90s (say, around the time when Wu Tang, Biggie and Death Row were all starting up), it’s remarkable to see how quickly the culture changed, not only in its substance, but also in its perception to those outside the scene. The genre went from being called a fad, the “next disco,” to being the most dangerous, damaging and controversial music in the world during the height of the “Cop Killer” and N.W.A. uproar of the early 90s.

Hip hop became arguably the largest source of cultural influence to the coveted youth demographic, affecting everything from fashion to liquor to sports to, hell, even video games. Its introduction was sharp, pointed, and sudden; and to many people, it was scary because it was simply a new thing, rather than an inherently black thing. Change is scary, and people often react to fear with spurn and anger. And let’s face it, Ice-T is kind of intimidating. Don’t believe me? Ask Aimee Mann.

As the ’90s went on, hip hop grew to be the largest musical force in popular music, up through 1998 when Puff Daddy’s No Way Out was released on the heels of Biggie’s death. Back when everywhere you stepped, you couldn’t not hear “I’ll Be Missing You.” When everyone was in some small way a rap fan, even if they said they hated rap. The end of the ’90s brought an appropriate closing-of-the-door on the sample-heavy East Coast sound and the G-funk/West Coast era to make way for bounce, bass, and the eventual reign of electronica that dominated the ’00s, and still makes up for most of the Billboard’s Top Charts. And with it, a generation of whipper snappers who had spent their formative years regarding rap as something that wasn’t necessarily ONLY black. By the early ’00s, a whole slew of white kids (like Rhymesayers, Definitive Jux, Stones Throw) were ruling the independent scene, as well as a burgeoning scene of Asian, Latino, and European rappers, DJs, B-boys, producers, and maybe most importantly…fans.

All of that may explain why the artist and fan base isn’t so monochromatic anymore, but does it necessarily explain why we may no longer care about race in hip hop? Maybe it was the rise and fall of the intense political correctness era that, so overly concerned about not crossing racial lines in the sand, only ended up drawing more of them. Whatever the cause, you’re much less likely to write an emcee off for being white, just as you’d be an idiot to write off an indie band for having a black lead singer. And for all the talk about our country’s entrance into a post-racial era thanks to President Obama, maybe we’ve already been there when it comes to music. Maybe we’ve been there for longer than we thought.

Perhaps the only ones who ever cared that only black people were rapping were the media and onlookers. In the early days of hip hop, Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation was always a multi-racial entity, promoting the unification of all cultures and races under a peaceful banner. Mr. Freeze was accepted into the Rock Steady Crew as their first white member long before this sort of an event was ever of any interest to the public consciousness.

Maybe the simple fact was that the founders and purveyors of the culture never cared that it was a racially exclusive club; they were simply waiting for everyone else to join the party. And the influx of non-black rappers was not so much an acceptance, but an obvious destination for other races and ethnicities to an artform that allowed you to speak in ways that other musical genres couldn’t provide. The appeal wasn’t “black”; the appeal was music. And maybe that’s what the originators always wanted, or at the very least, believed in some respect. I mean, Masta Ace asked Paul Barman. What do we know?

If hip hop is in a post-racial era, then it’s less a “thank god” thing, and more a non-event…nothing more than a taking-inventory moment for a culture that was once decried as the scourge of white suburban society. It’s undeniably a good thing, but the explanation about the how and why is probably less important, and maybe less complex than the explanation of racism and the things that Obama’s presidency brings to the table. Maybe the simplest explanation is this: a post-racial America is, in essence, a meritocracy. And regardless of what you believe about everyone else’s tastes, music has always been a personal meritocracy on a person-by-person basis. And even if some of us may still say “oh wow, he’s not black?” when we hear a dope emcee, a good song is a good song, no matter the color involved.

Matt Wilson Formulates Your Opinions About Music: LCD Soundsystem, “This Is Happening”

I’m proud to say that the new record from James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem carries on the fine tradition of the previous two.

You may have by now heard the lead single from the album, “Drunk Girls,” which I hate to inform you is the worst track on the whole thing. It’s got a perfectly danceable up-tempo beat but ends up sounding a lot more like the closing music to a 1980s college slobs vs. snobs comedy than I would prefer. On the album itself, “Drunk Girls” also has the misfortune of following the disarmingly great opener, “Dance Yrself Clean,” which does all the things LCD Soundsystem does really well — great percussion, clever and affecting lyrics and a terrific slow build to a big loud clattering of terrific future-groove sound at the end.

Murphy still can’t really figure out whether he’d prefer to be a heartfelt balladeer, a self-deprecating and self-aware purveyor of detached hipster irony, or just a guy who yells a lot over breakbeats. So here, as he was on the (better, but not by too much) 2007 album Sound of Silver, he’s all three. (Speaking of Sound of Silver, the track “One Touch” sounds like it came right off of it.) Not that there’s anything wrong with switching up moods, but it can be a little disorienting when you go from a pair of very sincere songs (the rocking “All I Want,” and “I Can Change”) to three self-referential, laugh-out-loud-when-you-catch-the lyrics types of tunes (“You Wanted a Hit,” “Pow Pow” and “Somebody’s Calling Me”) and then snapping right back to a pretty ballad to close out everything (“Home”).

But Murphy and group manage to make the sincere-then-detached-then-sincere dichotomy work through just plain great songcraft and some unmistakably catchy beats. Whether he’s tugging your heartstrings or tickling your funnybone, James Murphy’s going to make your feet move.

You: Think it’ll probably be in your top five this year.

Matt Wilson Formulates Your Opinions About Music: David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, “Here Lies Love”

Concept albums about historical figures have always been something of a tricky proposition. Sometimes, they can turn out to be a little obtuse, to the point where longtime fans are surprised to find out that the album was based on anybody. Take Neutral Milk Hotel’s superlatively great album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which, believe it or not, is about Anne Frank. If I hadn’t read that in interviews and reviews in the course of my budding love affair with that record, I would have never known.

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Self-Titled Eponymous: Why We Love Music

Former music critic, Steve Almond, wrote an op-ed piece over at the Boston Globe this past week, blasting the music criticism industry. He stated, rather eloquently, that good critics–himself not included, by his own admission–could never capture “what it feels like to listen to music. Because listening to music is a collaborative endeavor. Fans don’t just sit there (as critics do) parsing the technical merits of a song. They bring to each song their own emotional needs: their lust and sorrow, their hopes and heartbreak.” When faced with the question hovering in front of everyone’s face, he stated the obvious:

“Am I suggesting that music criticsm is a pointless exercise? Yeah, I guess I am.”

It’s an argument that’s been coming up a lot lately in every realm of popular culture (like here). Which begs the other obvious question: what is the value of cultural criticism as a whole? In olden times (y’know, like, fifteen years ago), the value of critics was simple: no one had the money, time, or in some ways, the taste-based fortitude to listen to all the music that was out there. Critics, and music publications or large-circulation websites, were there to simply tell you in broad strokes what music was worth your time, and what music was not.

There’s no question the importance of musical criticism has dwindled since the rise of blogs, digital downloads, and whatever other technological innovations that the RIAA can claim is responsible for the decline in records sales. But no matter what your taste in music may be, the collective reality is the same: the majority of music out there is mediocre, and simply not worth listening to or talking much about. That isn’t to say that a lot of that music is bad, there’s only so many ways you can say that a band is okay for what it is, but not really your thing.

Since the internet basically exists for prolonged conversation, it’s only expected that the people talking the loudest would be about the two extremes of the fan spectrum: the love, and the hate; something that Almond confirms when he says, “[Now], I devote myself almost exclusively to spreading the gospel of those bands that I love. As for the bands I don’t like (and there are still plenty of those) I tend to assume someone else will.”

What’s strange about Almond’s sentiment is that it seems oddly representative of a generation that he’s not a part of. At 44 years old, Almond was a teenager during the dawn of the 80s, a heyday of cultural pop indulgence that was embodied in lavish hairstyles, cock-rock metal, and other-worldly synthesized soundscapes. It was an era of excess bathed in a political conservatism that superficially kept the culture strictly divided between the haves and the have-nots. Even assuming that Almond’s critical career went well into his 20s, he would still identify with an era of grunge, alterna-rock that was too disillusioned and confused to know how to assert itself; a wash of teenage angst and a general spurning of the pop sensibilities that characterized the past decades, leaving in its wake an amelodic, overly complex, almost comically emotional decade of pop music that slowly killed itself out of social atrophy, rather than the excess of the stars of the 80s. As Y2K gripped the country in fear and peril, the pop cultural landscape was a hodge podge of street rap, electronica, power pop, and a resurgence of grandstand pop music that seemed like it was out of the 50s.

By the time Almond would reach his mid 30s, it would’ve been the mid-2000s (presumably sometime around the point where he came to his op-ed epiphany), leaving him smack dab in the middle of this confused era. An era where he and other industry professionals bemoan the downfall of critics and journalists as “taste makers,” with the belief that their ability to drive cultural taste represented their main value.

Yet, the interesting thing about our modern era is that this is the first generation in possibly half a century where people are no longer simply reacting to the generation that came before it, whether by incorporation or by rebellion. There’s an exciting acceptance going on where indie hipsters are willing to admit they listen to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” (no lie, I still love this song to death), as much as pop whores are tuned in to the latest Goldfrapp single. And unlike the ’90s (or the punk vs. New Wave war in the 80s), no one really seems to mind.

Perhaps professionals tend to see our generation as a “critical generation,” as Almond remarks; I see it as a generation that, for the first time ever, has the knowledge, facilities, and (perhaps thanks to some less-than-fully-honest means) the financial capacity to fully enjoy all the music that they always could have. And ignoring the hateful echo chamber section of the Internet for one second, there’s a lot of love going on; and that shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing.

No longer is it about hiding in your room and feeling like you’re the only one who understands the Smiths (you and Lester Bangs maybe). We are so interconnected with our friends, our family, in our schools, at our jobs, and with strangers we feel close to on the Internet. And we, as a culture, seem want to connect rather than retreat. And quite frankly, you don’t need a professional to tell you when you love something. The one thing Almond is dead right on…when you love a song, you don’t need a critic to justify it.

Say what you will about Almond’s article. The guy loves music, and perhaps that is the most valuable contribution to the ongoing debate on the armchair critic deluge that the web hath wrought upon the professional circle. Maybe we all need to go back to the basics, and have a discussion about what we’re all talking about. And maybe the starting point for that discussion is the simple statement, “Why do you love music?” The importance is that the discussion is even happening, and that even when the majority of music out there is music that will leave us unmoved, it still seems like there aren’t enough days to write about all the music we do love. And critics, just like non-professionals, are there to remind us of that either directly or indirectly.

Marooned: Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach

On the making-of documentary included with the “Experience Edition” of Gorillaz’ latest album, Plastic Beach, band creator (and former Blur front man) Damon Albarn bemoans the state of the cohesive album in the age of iPods and Random Play.  It’s a legitimate problem, and one that the first two Gorillaz albums tended to accommodate.  Collections of relentlessly catchy singles alongside more esoteric pieces, neither Gorillaz’ self-titled debut nor their follow-up Demon Days ever really cohered as an album.  You’d start one, get hung up on listening to “Feel Good Inc.” fourteen times in a row and then never make it too far past that.  Plastic Beach is a completely different animal.

When we last left Murdoc, 2D, Russell, and Noodle, the not-as-young-as-she-used-to-be guitarist was plummeting to the ground after her Floating Windmill Island was shot down by black helicopters.  Now, five years later, Noodle is presumed dead, at least for sure missing, and currently replaced by an Android that Murdoc has built from her DNA.  He’s also kidnapped 2D and taken him to Plastic Beach and left Russell to his own devices, recording the entire new album without him.

Not your typical New Album Press Release, to be sure, but one of the best parts of any Gorillaz release is the expansion of the band’s surprisingly dense mythology.  In this instance, that mythology dovetails perfectly into the thematics of the album.  The titular Plastic Beach is a lump of garbage in the middle of the ocean, made from the refuse of every living person on the planet.  And like its namesake, the album Plastic Beach is an amalgam of a very large number of different styles and musical voices.  (And that’s got to be about 7,439th time someone has made that comparison in a review but, hey, it works.)

“Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach,” the album’s first genuine track, serves as the perfect introduction to where the album is headed, what it’s trying to do, and just how different an album this is going to be compared to Gorillaz’ previous ones.  It starts off with a brief intro from Snoop Dogg (guest rapper, check).  The electronic thud of the dub bassline and electro beat rolls beneath it, also check.  The familiar synth wash carries it forward as well, all classic Gorillaz.  Then, just shy of a minute in, everything changes.  Keyboard-synthetic horns blast through the track, the click track of drums is matched with a live beat, and those horns morph into a melancholic but weirdly joyous melody.  Before Snoop shows up again, 2D’s warbly vocals appear, almost tenuously auto-tuned; artificial but warm.

At that moment, the album tells us exactly what it’s going to be.  The fifty or so minutes that follow carry the same fake/real aesthetic. Although mythologically, Russell has had nothing to do with the album, the drum performance of Gabriel Manuals Wallace is the literally beating heart that ties the album together, much like any Gorillaz fan might imagine Russell always did on previous tracks.  Thematically, the album touches on these aspects of the modern world as well.  The word “plastic” shows up in practically every song at some point.  And though it features a tremendous amount of guest artists, it still feels more coherent than any other previous Gorillaz album.  There’s no massive stand out like “Clint Eastwood” or “Feel Good Inc,” but the album is better off for it.  I haven’t personally ever listened to any single part of the album on its own.  It simply works so perfectly as a single entity.  Albarn got his wish.

Without ever being too preachily “green,” Plastic Beach is very much about garbage and artificiality in its constant and pitched battle with authenticity.  The album basically shows us that this kind of artificiality has become the new authenticity.  There’s no escaping it.

We’re all happily marooned.

Self-Titled Eponymous: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Mainstream

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published as being written by Ken Lowery. It was, in fact, written by Eugene Ahn, who writes Self-Titled Eponymous every two weeks.

Paste Magazine’s February 2010’s cover story asks the question, “Is Indie Dead?,” a take on John T. Elson’s 1966 Time Magazine cover “Is God Dead?,” an article that raised eyebrows and, in some cases, furor on both sides of the believer/non-believer debate.

The tongue-in-cheek irony of Rachael Maddux’s well-written article is that for many musical fanatics, the indie genre and mentality might as well be God, and with the general acceptance of indie as not only a genre of music, but also an aesthetic and identifier of things that actually aren’t independently produced, the argument is a fair one to make. As Maddux delves into the history and modern definition of indie, as well as the future of what will inevitably replace indie mentality and music, the subversive message that exists between the lines is, without a true indie movement, all we are left with is somehow deficient, or in more cynical, sinister terms, inherently faulty or pejorative. And my question would be, why?

As the article points out, there was a time when the term “indie” did mean something. The very idea of pop music, or the need to demarcate it as such, is a relatively new phenomenon, as music labels and studios were once the gatekeepers of well-produced, high-fidelity quality music that we came to regard as an invisible minimum bar for judging the sound of any band or musical act. Coming towards the latter half of the twentieth century, the presence of an entire segment of overproduced, glossy, high-profile music required some way to indicate the obvious separatist movement of DIY punk bands, garagecore acts, and bedroom producers and emcees. Technology destroyed the need for that distinction, as nowadays, smaller acts and independent musicians can afford to make good-sounding music at a fraction of the cost, to the point now where popular mainstream music could start out as a purely indie endeavor (see Souljah Boy).

So if the sound doesn’t separate the camps, then what does?

Is it indeed?!Out of sheer necessity, the “indie” mentality began to translate directly to the message inherent in a segment of the alternative movement, and the corporate and/or financial background of certain acts. The representation of a band backed by a gigantic, corporate conglomerate seemed antithetical to the notion of music’s inherent purity, and, in some respects, its democratic value. Everyone plays with the same musical scales, and works with generally the same musical language to produce the countless combinations of melodies, rhythms and messages that all genres and segments that music can offer. The equalizing power of music as an artform, as a creative exercise, and as an industry carries with it the soul of the conventional American Dream myth: that anyone with a guitar and three chords can write a song that could, in fact, change the world.

Exploitation of that lofty message for pure profit seemed wrong, even if it’s less than realistic to believe it could be otherwise. And while bands have always attempted to speak out against “the man,” or any number of political causes, it was the message that the music held, separate from partisan politics or individual beliefs, that was important. There was still something pure about the way music was created, and by proxy, the way good music was distributed (word of mouth, grassroots movements, needle-in-a-haystack success stories).

However, beyond mere musical contexts, the concept of independence is a myth. No longer can people retreat to Walden pond, or simply unplug from the world. There is something inherently faulty in peoples’ attempts to maintain this belief that music is somehow able to remain independent in an era where, due to informational access, technology, and simply the way we do business, it’s easier for acts to get exposure through more conventional means, while missing the fact that the conventional means are simply less conventional than they used to be. And while it may not be truly “indie” in the way we understand that term, pop music and the industry that surrounds it are inherently “more indie” than they ever used to be. And isn’t that a good thing?

Which leaves my original question: why is mainstream or pop music still viewed with such aspersion by a crowd that should be happy to let go of indie’s little brother status in the mainstream media? Think of how you regularly consume music. There used to be a distinction in terms of how we found music; a secret society that kept its doors bolted, paging through local zines, or word of mouth; small labels that printed limited runs of LPs and dusty record shops that allowed us to have the kind of discerning tastes that people in small towns, less metropolitan areas, and people simply not in-the-know didn’t have a chance at having. Those days are gone, and in its place, a scene where the dissemination of information has allowed smaller bands and limited run LPs to reach a wider audience. The Internet has allowed people who don’t have direct access to these kinds of informational sources to know which bands are good, and which bands are not.

So, what value do we derive from having a distinction between a group like, say, The Knife and Miley Cyrus? Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. But in reality, what is the difference between say, Justin Timberlake’s FutureSexLoveSounds and Hot Chip’s Made in the Dark, if both albums make you want to get out on the dance floor? Does the fact that one was made with a higher budget and bigger PR machine somehow distinguish its quality to a greater degree, and in some way should make us deem that one or the other is better?

The answer to that goes back to the earlier discussion of music as a democratic concept. And maybe that’s incorrect. Let’s call music a “personal meritocracy.” Which isn’t to say that the “best” music will always succeed the most (what is “the best” anyway?), but rather, the music you like the best will always be the music you go to first, that you purchase, that you play more. That’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? One of those wonderful things about culture and personal taste is that no one else can tell you that something you love isn’t better than the thing they love; because, personally, it’s not true. You will laud the best music, and you will pan the worst music. The problem with the indie/mainstream distinction is that it informs our opinion of personal meritocratic beliefs about music by adding in external factors, and ruining the ability to judge music in a true, personal sense.

You may disagree, and simply cite the number of horrid, awful musical acts that top the Billboard charts. That’s a fair argument, but again, it’s one informed by your personal belief of what’s good and what’s not, while simply ignoring the fact that (a) there may in fact be many, many people who personally DO love those songs; and conversely, (b) that the Billboard Hot 100 is not the only way for new music to be disseminated, and is not the only avenue for artists to get attention and financially succeed. In other words, that music is the loudest because, traditionally, those outlets have simply been there the longest; and in many ways will always be the same, whether it jives with your taste or not.

Beyond that surface-level glance at what constitutes modern pop music, consider for a moment the mash-up genre. The appeal of the genre is familiarity with something new; and most of the time, the familiarity originates from some earlier iteration of pop music mixed with some form of modern, possibly less well-known musical act. The combinations of the familiar and unfamiliar creates the kind of enjoyable music that many people (myself included) cannot deny. The lack of a need for a distinction between mainstream and indie music is a surprisingly cogent view of the very discussion that Paste is engaging in, and may in fact prove Paste’s thesis that indie, at least in the way we know the term, is in fact, dead as a doorknob.

My question still remains., Why is this a BAD thing? The question of the death of indie is posed in such a way that it’s something to be bemoaned, because without a thing apart from the mainstream, we are all lost as music fans, as geeks, as scholars. That somehow, we are missing something, as if the prior definition of “indie” has disappeared simply because the scene is no longer prevalent, or even necessary.

There were punk and hardcore bands that were simply “too loud, too fast, or too rough” for pop music in the 80’s. There was gangsta rap music that was “too explicit, too damaging, too horrid” for the 90’s. And there was electronica music that was “too soulless, too machine-like, too repetitive” in the 2000’s. And yet, in some form or fashion, these are all still present, both in the popular eye in some form, and beneath the radar in a million other ways. The end result is that everything has been accepted, and isn’t that a good thing?

The death of the scene that surrounds indie acts simply means that indie has in some ways become the mainstream. And that, for the first time in maybe ever, the music YOU love has a chance at being commercially successful. And in the end, music can be more representative of what everyone is in fact listening to. I still say this is a good thing.

Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question in the context of Paste’s article. As Paste asks, “Is Indie Dead?” and subsequently answers “yes.” Maybe a better reaction would be, “Who cares?”