Johnson argues that poptimism still falls short as an effective critical approach — the equivalent, he writes, of judging a track by measuring the amount of dopamine released during a listen. In its place, Johnson proposes a new form of criticism which, like the old rockism, holds closely a "hierarchy of artistic priorities," but which corrects many of the fundamental, underlying issues that originally led rockist criticism so astray.Read More
"...rockism being primarily the idea that (1) great art requires authenticity of expression (2) that rock music is an inherently more authentic mode of expression than other genres, and that therefore (3) rock deserves (and once held, for some thirty-odd years) status at the top of the popular music critical hierarchy. "Read More
In the press release for her most recent EP M3LL155X (pronounced “Melissa”), released on August 13th, FKA twigs called her new record "an aggressive statement conceptualizing the process of feeling pregnant with pain, birthing creativity and liberation.” Most musicians have a hard time describing their work in words, but FKA twigs (née Taliah Barnett) nailed hers down to a tee. M3LL155X is a musical statement as aggressive and conceptual as you'll ever see — uniquely so I would argue, with its very identity as an EP an act of ferocious relevance.
Until now, Barnett had given all her releases titles that were themeless descriptions of their forms: EP1, EP2, LP1. This functioned as a leveling mechanism in the eyes of her audience. By simply titling the releases by their form and number, she framed each record as equally important within her oeuvre. But M3LL155X, breaks that pattern. Not only does M3LL155X have a specific title and, as Barnett has stated in interviews, the explicit theme of power and submission, it's also accompanied by a full sixteen-minute music video featuring all five of the EP’s tracks and elaborating on the record’s complicated subject matter. Most importantly, in an impressively cohesive aesthetic gesture, the songs on M3LL155X all have a consistently sinister color or feature some sort of dark, industrial drop beneath Barnett's airy, pleading vocals.
In the music video, which effectively functions as a short film, Barnett addresses how power and submission exist between audience and performer. For the song “in time,” Barnett dances in front of a scrutinizing male observer, who frowns at her through a floating crystal screen. Barnett is literally under the male gaze and in that manner commenting on the gendered power dynamics most female performers are subjected to in music videos and through their individual brands. For the song “I’m Your Doll,” Barnett becomes a blow-up sex mannequin with a ragged, drooling man careening above her, but as she said recently in an interview with NPR, she views the submissive gesture as being on her terms and thus empowering, and believes the music video communicates that message in a manner the music cannot on its own. Penultimate track “Glass And Patron" reconciles her opposing desires for submission and power, juxtaposing vulnerable lyrics like “Am I dancing sexy yet? Will you fuck me while I stare at the sun?” against the chilling, dominant incantation “one… two… three… now hold that pose for me.” The video ends with twigs fully empowered, a red-garbed queen seated on a throne, sleek men dancing before her, desirous of her approval.
But what’s most noteworthy and groundbreaking about all this is that M3LL155X — likely the most definitive thematic and aesthetic statement of FKA twigs’s career to date — is just an EP rather than a full-length album. FKA twigs’s prime aesthetic statement was not in the same recorded form that has been used for every other prime aesthetic statement of every other mainstream artist in the history of recorded music. The fact that the titles of each of Barnett's previous releases so self-consciously refer to their own format demonstrates the artist's awareness of these formats and their respective associations (i.e. what it means to release an LP and what it means to release an EP). When Barnett releases EP1, EP2, and now M3LL155X, she isn’t just releasing music, she’s releasing an EP. This is potentially the first time that a relatively mainstream artist has placed an EP over an LP in thematic significance. That alone is huge.
The reason this is such a big deal, the reason why I’m even writing about this record when it’s already been covered so extensively, is that twigs’s gesture of prioritizing the EP over the LP is a symptom of a larger trend within the music industry and within the music listening populace. The experiences and desires of contemporary listeners are changing rapidly, for better or worse, and investigating the evolving, multi-faceted identity of the EP in today’s music industry turns out to be a useful means of tracing how listeners and the industry are pulled between competing ways of consuming and packaging music.
The defining characteristic of the EP (short for “extended play”) is its length: the Recording Industry Association of America defines an EP as a release of three to five songs or a release of under thirty minutes, though in reality many artists call six or seven-track records EPs as well (Car Seat Headrest’s latest “EP” clocked in at almost an hour and nine tracks long, so definitions are flexible-ish). As a result of their conveniently short length, many of the first EPs were often just compilations of previous hits, with one of the first well-known EPs being the Beatles' The Beatles' Hits from 1963. And length ends up being the EP’s primary strength as a release form: an EP takes less time to write, which means more time to polish. It’s easier to pull off a concise, consistent aesthetic statement over the course of three to six songs than over the course of ten or more. The LP is simply more time consuming, a more intense artistic endeavor, and therefore it's part of its identity for to be sprawling, less organized in some perfect systematic fashion. This isn’t the case with the EP.
The reason the extended play has evolved into such a complicated release format is because its length is being used to many different ends, all either stretching beyond our pre-existing conceptions of the format or conforming to them, both to positive and negative results. One of the most commonly seen forms of the EP is “the EP as a stealth single,” where an artist releases a catchy track couched between two or three other songs of lesser importance, sometimes bundling the tracks together with the aim of charging significantly higher EP prices. An example of this is producer Hudson Mohawke's 2014 EP Chimes, which revolves entirely around the title track at the beginning of the record, a hard-hitting banger complete with a brassy drop and a faux (or real?) canine “woof.” Second track “Brainwave” is two minutes of shifting ambient textures without a beat, and following cut “King Kong Beaver” is too frenetic and cartoonish to be viable as a real single. Mohawke doesn’t attempt to hide the EP's lopsided nature — he called the EP Chimes after its central track and used a remix of that same banger as its fourth track. But there are also EPs which explicitly defy this “stealth-single” model: Nosaj Thing’s Views/Octopus EP contains what is by far his most famous track, "Aquarium," an ethereal chillwave anthem that catapulted him into the indie-electronic mainstream in 2006, but the EP isn’t centered around his hit song. Most of the surrounding tracks, like "Heart Entire" and “Distro” are arguably more dance-y than “Aquarium,” and the popularity of “Aquarium” works towards rather than against the larger aesthetic impression the EP delivers.
Next is the model of the "EP as post-album leftovers.” It’s a way for an artist to keep giving to fans during what would normally be a post-album lull. Animal Collective, notably, does this well. The EPs Water Curses and Fall Be Kind were each made from unused tracks from Strawberry Jam and Merriweather Post Pavilion respectively, and all four records have their own unique aesthetic personality. The EP as post-album leftovers works when the tracks add a new dimension to a previously explored sound world while not sounding too similar to the previous material. While Animal Collective certainly delivers, this model can crash and burn when the EP tracks end up just being weaker toss-offs of a previous artistic vision. Baths’ 2014 Ocean Death EP, which followed a year after his surprisingly dark sophomore album Obsidian, served more to show his sound’s limits than its potential. Though the release was billed as “a companion piece” to his last LP, the songs mostly sounded like poorer versions of the previously released material.
Closely related but distinct from this type of extended play is the "EP as hype tactic,” a release with less innocent intentions which occurs when an artist releases an EP before or after an album release in order to build or maintain buzz surrounding the full-length. Often, this is the result of an artist being pressured by his or her label, and even if the EP can stand up on its own legs, listeners can sometimes walk away feeling like they’ve been “had,” that the artist was doing it less to share new content with fans and more to rev up attention for an upcoming LP. This is forgivable for new bands that just want to “get something out there" and engage with a fan base as soon as possible, but not as much so for more mainstream artists. Panda Bear has been particularly guilty of this in the past year, releasing an EP both before and after his colorful full-length Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. While the first EP, Mr. Noah, was a lush, tropical release that functioned well as a cohesive product, post-album Crosswords seemed more like an amalgam of odds and ends, new mixes of old songs and unreleased old material all put out into the world as much for the continued hype as for musical substance. Bjork is perhaps the ultimate perpetrator of this crime, known for releasing heaps of insubstantial post-album material and lackluster remixes, either in the form of EPs or full-length compilations, all functioning as the equivalent TV infomercial.
Another interesting release to think about in this regard, though it isn’t strictly an EP, is Mac Demarco’s “mini-LP” Another One, for which the very title seems to knowingly refer to its own lack of significance. DeMarco’s label Captured Tracks is known for trying to milk as much fame as they can out of him, pressuring him to write a catchy single for talk shows, putting him on relentless touring schedules, and giving him never-ending recording deadlines. On Another One, the listener starts to hear DeMarco’s craft suffer as a result. Other than the title track and “A Heart Like Hers,” the songs seem like regurgitations of the same trademark Mac Demarco guitar grease, soaked in his trademark chorus sound. Just more Mac songs, just “another one.” In contrast to M3LL155X, which is an EP striving for the aesthetic importance of an LP, Another One is an EP in disguise, a throw-away release of hastily assembled material written and recorded during two free weeks between tours.
The last form of the EP left to talk about might be, in my opinion, the most successful and therefore the most worthy of discussion — what I call the “EP as novella.” M3LL155X falls most into this category. The EP as novella is an EP that strives to be a cohesive aesthetic and thematic statement and refuses to be thought of as “just an EP.” Think about the mythology behind “The Great Novel,” how anyone who goes about writing a novel is consciously or unconsciously pinning themselves against books like Don Quixote, Moby Dick, and Pride and Prejudice. This same daunting baggage exists with the album, because in making a full-length, you are to some extent engaging with the venerated canon of Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper, and Dark Side of the Moon, whether that engagement is conscious or not. Like the novella, the EP can be a way to free oneself of this baggage, to make a serious artistic statement without it being held up to the standard of past masterpieces. Does this make producing an EP an act of cowardice? I don’t think so. Striking out across that sort of structural frontier is creatively empowering. When Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis and Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice, those novellas each became classics in their own right, and more importantly, on their own terms, without their nature being particularly influenced by what a novella had or hadn't been in the past.
We’ve already talked about how M3LL155X refuses to be “just an EP," and Thundercat’s recent six-track The Beyond/Where Giants Roam does this very same thing, spinning a psychedelic narrative journey through his lonely contemplations that impacts you as emotionally and aesthetically as any great album can. And so do the EPs of Arca and Washed Out and Wild Nothing and… There are so many substantial, serious EPs being released now — is it plausible that eventually not only will there be the phenomenon of “The Great Album” but also “The Great EP”? The same way there is, to some extent, now a canon of great novellas? And how did this shift begin so suddenly?
It would probably be too simplistic to say that the phenomenon of the significant EP is solely a result of finding a middle ground between album and single. That said, in the recent move toward listening to individual songs on playlists, and away from listening to albums start to finish, as cohesive units, the experience of consuming a large aesthetic statement has been lost; the serious, thematic EP helps recover some of that lost ground. When people stop listening to albums all the way through, as is now a common occurrence thanks to playlist-intensive streaming services like Spotify, the curatorial power gets shifted from the artist to the listener. What I mean by this is that when an artist makes an album and the listener plays the album all the way through, the artist is curating the content that the listener consumes over the next thirty minutes to sixty minutes. But when the listener takes favorite songs from favorite albums and throws them all in one playlist, the artist is stripped of this curatorial power and it is passed along to the listener, who now curates his or her own listening experience (or who has that experience curated by a third party — radio DJs, Google Music interns, algorithms). This is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact, many would argue that playlists positively empower the consumer, who’s now able to selectively choose his content and potentially maximize his or her own pleasure.
But do playlists always maximize one’s pleasure? I’m not sure. As someone who listens to music mainly through my own curated playlists, I sometimes feel like I’m missing the experience of hearing the entirety of an artist’s vision at a specific point in his or her life. Listening to all your favorite songs delivers an intense amount of fun in a short amount of time, but sometimes it can be a bit like watching a sitcom instead of reading serious literature. When you listen to an album all the way through, there might be some songs that you like less than others, songs that you might not put on a favorites playlist if you had the choice, but the feeling of giving your experience up to the artist and allowing him or her to steer you emotionally in whatever way they choose, to show you their world and give it time to develop, is a precious, redemptive, and potentially transcendent interaction between human beings that can’t really be found in a homemade playlist. It’s communication with others, after all (and particularly through art), that makes us feel less alone.
In terms of listening to songs/playlists or listening to albums, it seems, like most things, to come down to balance and moderation, and the EP-as-novella fits into that equation in a particularly convenient way. The EP, in its short length, doesn’t ask for too much commitment from the listener in order for him or her to appreciate the artist’s aesthetic world. In this new, single-driven (rather than album-driven) industry, the EP-as-novella is a convenient way to expose the listener to the entirety of one’s artistic vision in a practical manner that takes into consideration the frenetic, information-saturated bustle of our times. The previously mentioned identities of the EP will likely remain — there will always still be hype-EPs and stealth-single-EPs — but as of late, we can now welcome the EP-as-serious-thematic-release into our musical and cultural purview. Within just a couple years, a whole new structure of music has been created. The EP no longer has to come in at a distant second place.
Analyze at your own risk, embrace to your own pleasure.Read More
Written By Caleb Oldham
Our heroes are humans. Yet, through the process of idolization we often endow these individuals with super-human capabilities. Objects they touch become more valuable, thoughtless words can become maxims, and for a moment we suspend our belief that they cry, shit, and eat like everyone else. Famed rock critic Lester Bangs walked the thin line of aggrandizing the work of his idols while simultaneously deconstructing their personas, bringing them down to a human level. With the “underground” hero, there is an added element of exclusivity, a feeling of ownership between listener and artist — they are “yours,” something not shared with many others. Typically, we tell two types of narratives about these cultish figures: the “relatability” narrative, as in “anyone can do what they’re doing!” or the story of the inaccessible, tortured, prolific genius releasing mountains of work that simply can’t be tied down to contracts, norms, or expectations. Stevie Dinner fits into neither of these categories.
His minimalist Bandcamp About section manages to say it all: “Stevie Dinner is Josh Hughes from Atlanta, GA.” Typed in seafoam-green, Times New Roman, here we find the virtual home of one of America’s best kept secrets. Here, we find a trove of chewed-up pop culture, spat out like a wad of bubblegum and wrapped up in a silvery film of “Softcore Punk/Cheap Jazz/No House” — music which Hughes described to me in an interview as “Fun, sexy music … something that makes you want to dance.” This is how Hughes typically replies to questions — direct, yet still accompanied by a vague shrug. While I’m talking to him on the phone he’s waiting for a friend to come pick him up. He doesn’t have a car so he has to rely on others and ends up walking a lot. Other curious little bits of information accumulate over the course of our interview. He’s a 24 year-old sound engineer at a salsa club who plays shows around Atlanta, his home for the past 7 years. He relates to guys like Ariel Pink, and admits to being an obsessive over figures like 1960s cult producer Joe Meek.
His lyrics touch on escape and alienation, on not feeling “good like every human should.” Although such themes might threaten to put Hughes in the “loner genius” category, the music they are set to upends this kind of classification. The fact that Hughes works at a salsa club likely explains in part his ability to consistently craft interesting rhythms: with a melodic bassline that never stays still, and percussion that ranges from a bouncing, electronic drum machine to a classic kit sporting an overstated high-hat, it’s apparent that Stevie Dinner isn’t trying to alienate anyone, he’s orchestrating a celebration.
The “throw your homework onto the fire” nature of Hughes’ music doesn’t take away from the well-thought out aesthetic of the Stevie Dinner project: “Everything has to be contained, they have to relate” as Hughes put it. And even though the 24 year old describes low fidelity as a production “necessity,” it often works in his favor, adding a homemade flavor to the artificial world he’s set up. And while VHS-style music videos, low fidelity production, and an embracing of everything “pop” aren’t necessarily original phenomena, it’s this universe that Stevie Dinner curates that makes it interesting for the listener.
Star Wars blasters, children cheering, and the THX sound effect all make their way into a Stevie Dinner album, and with song titles like “Teenage Mutants” and “Home Alone Too,” his recordings seem to resemble a funhouse mirror held up to a society inundated by pop culture. If anything, Hughes’ stance seems to be rooted in his ambiguous position as the product of the society he’s poking fun at. He succeeds at parodying the game while still playing it, and he does this by positing himself as a knowledgeable outsider. He’s a cultural connoisseur who “feels like a stranger” — embodying the culture that we all share, as well as the secrets that we keep to ourselves. One line, sung over a nasal midi keyboard, sticks out as especially representative of Dinner’s unique brand of thoughtful, helpless comedy: “My sister’s boyfriend is a drug dealer. What the fuck can I do about that.”
Stevie Dinner’s work is an ongoing dialogue with the culture that bred him, as well as the bedroom artists that came before him. He doesn’t approach his idols as Gods, but as individuals to be criticized, parodied, and celebrated. In a sense, then, Stevie Dinner’s entire performance is a dismembering of the fetishizable tropes of celebrity; a performance that confers a healthy awareness of the very human — and, by extension, somewhat absurd — project of the cult figure.
Listen to more Stevie Dinner on his bandcamp.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two songs in my record collection. One is Jimmie Rodgers’ “TB Blues,” considered by some musicologists (most notably Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor) to be one of the first popular autobiographical songs. Rodgers made a career out of singing songs about other people - miners, gamblers, gunslingers, jailbirds. But in 1931, the tuberculosis he contracted at 27 years old started getting the better of him, and he became increasingly aware of his own mortality. As a result, he put out a song littered with darker themes about the loneliness of the grave and how his bones rattled like trains down the Southern Pacific. Whereas before, he might have used fictional characters to covertly portray and express his own personal tragedies and obstacles, here he puts up no fronts, speaking plainly in the first person: “When it rained down sorrow it rained all over me.”
The other song is “Oh Boy” by the band Girls, who broke up a few years ago. It’s a b-side to their early single “Laura,” and never appeared on a full album release. The subject of “Oh Boy” isn’t nearly as grim as “T.B. Blues”. It’s just about a girl and wishing you were someone else. But the emotions - the intense loneliness and isolation, desperation and surrender - are the same. This is the sort of output that has led lead singer Christopher Owens to, on occassion, be counted among Bob Dylan and Nick Drake as an intensely personal, authentic songwriter. (Dylan’s inclusion in this group in the popular mindset is especially problematic, but that’s a separate issue in itself.)
Rodgers and Owens don’t get the stamp of authenticity just because they appear to be honest with their respective audiences. It’s not a label we would often assign, for instance, artists that sing about easy-going activities or who convey optimistic outlooks. Emotional pain, often rooted in personal failings, is a prerequisite to authenticity, and it takes an enormous amount of vulnerability and courage to express. I wonder if that’s part of the reason that male singer-songwriters resonate with me more than their female counterparts. I feel like the same burdensome expectations of masculine strength and emotion-masking that bear down on me are placed on them, and I can admire their vulnerability all the more for it.
There’s also a romanticized Americana element in Owens’ music: his love of all things country, blues, and rock and roll (essentially, the American popular canon), plus the way he comes off is akin to Elvis Costello and Brian Wilson in a very reverent, uncynical way.
All of this combined makes Headspace’s cover of “Oh Boy” an extremely peculiar statement. The band obviously admires Girls’ music because the track is semi-rare, a fairly buried b-side that casual fans likely wouldn’t encounter. In addition, they’ve made a point of not only recording a studio version, but doing multiple live performances and acoustic sessions of the song. There’s a deep respect, it seems, for Owens’ songcraft.
But Headspace’s version undermines all the romanticizations that are so important to the appeal of the original. It starts out with a standard rock intro that is quickly greeted by a nasally, seemingly insincere vocal. It doesn’t carry any of the heartbreak of Owen’s track, sounding less confessional and more Hunx and his Punx. It takes the vulnerability of the song and disguises it in a cloak of irony, allowing Headspace’s lead singer to avoid all the messy emotions that come went into Owens’ delivery.
This process of emotional dilution shapes many of the artistic statements nowadays; the adolescent sarcasm of Generation X has been replaced by the arguably equally adolescent irony of Generation Y. Everyone, on some level, has been exposed to this characteristic irony. It’s evident to anyone that is part of this generation, and there are plenty of Salon editorials and Guardian thinkpieces to make it abundantly clear to the other generations.
The perception of what this brand of countercultural irony entails, I think, is often misguided and misunderstood. There exists a common belief that irony is destructive because it encourages the embracing of otherwise socially undesirable and perceived-as-worthless cultural items: bad music, ugly clothes, terrible trends, obnoxious hashtagging. This is somewhat true, but only if you change the emphasis of the statement, italicizing the “socially” in “socially undesirable” and “perceived-as” in “perceived-as-worthless.” See, what might be construed as the biggest problem with irony is, in fact, its biggest strength. It allows people to find value in socially-rejected cultural items. It lets people off the hook for treasuring things that they otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to treasure, without getting an earful from friends or fans for it.
I’d even posit that, contrary to common perception, the counterculture isn’t embracing these items on a superficial level as a means to a humorous end (though this sometimes happens); instead, I’d argue that it’s using humor as a superficial means to legitimately embrace these items. I’d argue that the vocalist of Headspace really believes in the power of the words he’s singing. He’s just acutely aware that sincerity can come off as cheesy, that attempts at genuine artistic expression can be belittled as juvenile, that self-expression can sometimes be met by eyerolls. These reactions hurt. A snotty delivery is the perfect tool to deflect and preclude these criticisms while still allowing him to embrace the beauty of a song like “Oh Boy.” In a strange way, this strong self-awareness has made Generation Y the post-modern generation: anxious about its every expression, output, and utterance, an anxiety likely due partly to social media’s proven effect of making its users incredibly sensitive to the expectations and reactions of their vast and diverse audience.
Of course, the tools can also be the problem. The fact that this self-awareness is social rather than personal has obvious drawbacks. And irony, as has been pointed out by Salon, can be used as a mask that prevents truth and communication, rather than a tool that fosters it - a mask that works as a half-measure, a rudimentary stop gap to allow us to actually appreciate. It can come off as cynical and disaffected, and it often prevents empathy and genuineness. Taken to an extreme, it can terminate the tradition that originated with “T.B. Blues”. You end up with artists printing and framing “Save Trees Lol” instead of striving hard to make sincere, beautiful expressions (Ripp’s recent solo show at the Post Master gallery was a series of breathtaking oil paintings which I can’t speak highly enough of, which is why I feel mostly alright about singling out his “Save Trees” print). There’s surely a value to ironic and snotty art that I’m not going into here, I know; art isn’t all about pursuing beauty. And all of this sounds sentimental and wishy-washy, I know; it makes me want to put on a mask myself, to qualify the statement or to distance myself from embracing beauty. But, I think that very fact serves to illustrate the importance of what I’m trying to say.
January 6th of this year, 2015, marked the sixth anniversary of Animal Collective’s groundbreaking Merriweather Post Pavilion. It’s an incredible record, worth checking out if you don’t know it, but this write-up is less about the record and more about how we interact with music in the digital era.
I was in middle school at the time of the album’s release, and was only beginning to have the vaguest awareness of the existence of an underground music scene at the time. There was classical and Top 40 and I knew I hated the latter so I listened exclusively to classical. Merriweather Post Pavilion and its hype machine (and subsequent acclaim) passed on by in 2009 without me.
A lot of the music in my life has been this way. While habitually belittled, the YouTube trope of the angsty teen lamenting being born too late, or in the wrong generation, reflects a common sentiment of having ‘missed’ big musical moments. It’s how I feel not just about Post Pavilion but also, for example, Radiohead's radical paradigm shift with the release of Kid A, Arcade Fire’s bursting onto headlining slots in 2004, or perhaps most dramatically, The Beatles’ last full show at Candlestick Park. I can still watch Radiohead play "Idioteque" in an encore, and Paul McCartney is touring and churning out full-lengths as steadily as ever, but the culture that created and surrounded these moments, as well as the cultural transformations that these moments in turn created, is something for me reserved to reading about in archived online album reviews, photo retrospects, and think-pieces.
These may have all been fairly important cultural moments in certain scenes, but I can't help but feel that the ubiquitous cultural moment has sort of ended, or at least become... less ubiquitous. I feel like the music scene, like anything in this day and age, has become a not-so-cohesive sum of such a plethora of niches that this kind of moment is difficult if not impossible. And the internet both dually makes these amazing niches possible and also undermines their cultural currency in your life. It's absolutely amazing that someone's favorite genre can be Nigerian psychedelic rock music, but being a fan of Nigerian psych-rock is also a lonely existence. Not many (any) of your friends are likely to share the same music loves as you, or even know what you're talking about when you can't shut up about how your favorite band is dropping a new record in a month. My Beautiul Dark Twisted Fantasy was an album I was around to see hyped, released, and acclaimed, and yet at the time it felt like not much more than a blip. None of my friends liked the album - most hated it, would rather listen to College Dropout and West's older, "less weird" stuff - and sure, my small hometown didn't lend themselves to a rich music scene, and perhaps all your friends were really excited about that record and it was incredibly important musical moment for you - great. But in my world, I knew Pitchfork had given it a perfect 10, there was a thread about it on a forum I browsed at the time, and the album filled up a lot of my listening time for six months. So did it feel culturally ubiquitous? Not really. It came in strong, and gradually faded, but it all happened on the internet for me, in communities not nearly as important to my life as my real ones. (Sidenote: this wasn't always the case for me, and won't hold true with anyone who has an important social circle based on the internet.)
A big cultural moment, to me, was when I walked to another floor’s dorm room to see my friend sitting in the hall sobbing after finding out Lou Reed had passed away. A big cultural moment, to me, was the explosion of Burger Records and the LA garage rock/cassette scene just a few hours south of my hometown, and what that meant to me and my small group of now more music-savvy friends. These are big cultural moments to a fair amount of people, and I might even hesitantly argue that Lou Reed's passing was one of the few big cultural moments of the 2013 that a lot of people paid attention to and were aware of and impacted by - I had a conversation with my uncles, who used to live in the city before moving to Poughkeepsie, NY, about it, and it felt like a big deal then. But just as big of moments for me personally these past couple years were Gap Dream's new record and unbelievable Brooklyn show, and the discovery of todayshits, because these were all moments I shared with someone else close to me, moments that really engulfed my world, if not many other people's worlds.
And so what's bizarre about this day and age, compared to the semi-monoculture of the 50s and 60s, is that I can read about what a big cultural deal an album or band is without actually ever having heard one of its songs before. The internet is a more choice-based provider of entertainments: you can choose what to subscribe to, and you can choose what to click on, which is what creates these amazing niches as opposed to fifty years ago, when you had to accept what was programmed on the radio or on television. I overheard a couple in a Green Point coffee shop talking about Lorde, and I saw the posts all over a few of the blogs I followed, but I was never that interested and never even bothered clicking play on an embedded YouTube video that popped up in my news feed. Lorde was a zero-moment to me, essentially non-existent. One of the biggest cross-over acts of the past decade meant nothing to me, had zero impact on my life, might have well not existed.
What I wonder then, given the ever-diminishing breadth (though certainly not depth; it would be absurd to posit that people today care less about music when all current consumption and production trends point to the opposite) of impact that records are having upon release, is whether the influence of these records within the future collective memory will be similarly diminished, and whether, subsequently, the coming decades will be increasingly hard to define by the artistic works they gave birth to. We haven’t yet fully moved into a time where generation-defining acts, moments, and scenes are non-existent - I confidently believe that Gaga and Timberlake, among others, will fifty years from now stand as defining sounds of the 2000s. But it does seem like we’re moving towards such a point, and as with most shifts in cultural landscapes, that progression will certainly be bittersweet and nostalgia-laced for many. And while the price may be steep - all bets are off on reminiscing the sounds of your youth with retirement home cohabitants - the pay-offs should be even sweeter. But that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes yearn for a time where things meant just a little bit more, to more people - even if that time only exists in my head.
“In the larger scheme of things, Alog don’t matter. At all. Unlike Nicki Minaj, if their music didn’t exist, the world would be virtually no different. So when writing about Alog, I have no choice but to write about how this music might work for a single person (me), and how these abstract sounds might enrich a single life (mine). That’s where the meaning is found.”
That’s a quote from Mark Richardson, talking about Alog, a Norweigan duo of abstract electronic musicians for a column of his called Resonant Frequency. It sums up a lot of the music written about here for Rare Candy - music not many people have listened to and in all likelihood, not many people will ever hear. And this does make it hard sometimes to write about this music. Certainly it mandates a very different approach than if I were to talk about Minaj’s “Anaconda” this year.
The music’s different because of it too, aware of its makers’ own realistic expectations of low-bar success - a few hundred streams maybe, or a couple digital album sales. It knows it doesn’t have the attention of the whole world, so it doesn’t have to interact with it in the way that “Anaconda” is instantly interacting with dozens of modern cultural issues - musical, social, political, and otherwise.
But I think there’s still some role for talking about how this music exists relative to the larger music world, even if isn’t really much a part of that world at all. I’ve just done it, above. I’m going to continue doing it below.
The Galiano EP is one of these records. There are three sales besides my own listed on its website. It isn’t available to download for free - it’ll cost you a dollar - which pretty much means four people in the world outside of the band own this record. And so one way to approach Galiano in the larger musical scene is as a mini-tragedy: a brilliant and well-produced record that never went anywhere. Another way is to bring it up as commentary of the seeming arbitrariness that governs much of the way the music industry works: talent is often a prerequisite, but far from a guarantee.
Straight up, the EP is one of the best sounding self-produced, self-released, nothing albums I’ve heard. It positively shimmers. You hear it as soon as the guitar and drums come in half a minute into the first track, “The Weekend,” which pans around sophisticatedly and sparsely to brilliant effect. It’s bright and clear while still being warm and not tinny.
The pop hooks are there too. It really is - and I’m saying this again because listening to songs like third track and my personal stand-out “Carnival Talk,” it’s hard for me to believe - a little puzzling that this album never gained any momentum in the slightest over the nearly two years since its release. The arrangements are, similar to the production, warm and well-balanced, smooth and effortless. The tracks are layered well, creating a great texture that occasionally wall-of-sounds but never seems forced. It’s fun, laid back, and upbeat music (which may be part of the problem - there’s very little angst in Galiano) that works well best by the beach without sounding like it’s trying to overly ape traditional and culturally over-saturated surf aesthetics.
But Galiano EP isn’t some kind of classic album, and I’m not trying to hype it up as one. It’s not particularly innovative, and it’s not pushing any boundaries. Not that it has to, necessarily. There are some clear influences, and it’s definitely a comfortable release. The songs don’t necessarily compel me to listen and re-listen to them on repeat in the same way the immediacy of some of this year’s best underground pop songs certainly did - Deer’s “Bamboo,” Miserable Chillers’ “Bulldozer.” But it’s a good record, it’s a good debut, and it’s a huge tragedy that the project stopped where it did. “No Fun” mixes weird quirky American surf influences with punk chants in a somewhat predictable but enjoyable combination, and “In That Island Sun” more surprisingly combines spaghetti western with World Cup anthem in another effective pairing.
Perhaps the familiarity and comfort of the Galiano EP is a large part of what doomed it from the beginning. It’s a good record, again, and one I think you should listen to. But it never compelled me to send it to everyone I knew with a three-hundred word endorsement upon hearing it. It’s an album I think you have a high likelihood of enjoying, maybe even enjoying a lot, and maybe you’ll end up downloading it and becoming world owner number four. But I don’t know if you’ll ever fall head-over-heels in love with this record because it just doesn’t take enough risks. It’s that guy you date who’s great, and stable, and loving, but maybe not exciting enough or rocky enough for things to ever run as deep as it could. But don’t let me discourage you from checking out the album. It’s worth your time.
Listen/Download to Galiano here: https://galiano.bandcamp.com/
I was sorting through an old wish list of music on my phone section of my notes - you know Mark Richardson used to carry a real physical piece of paper in his wallet so whenever he hit up or passed by a record store, he could cut right to it - so much for the romanticization of crate-digging, might as well use Amazon Prime for that - anyways I found a couple of tracks by a group called the Young Sinclairs, actually an a/b side deal and it's really grooving. Not sure why I didn't pick up a copy already, but I put an order in and you should do the same, in fact I'll grab it for your for a Christmas present.
I'm hesitant about the whole business of writing up the track because it's definitely got a 60's garage feel, with a post-Beatles reaction element a little up the lane of Big Star I think is a decent comparison. But I don't know if that's totally fair. And with the whole nostalgia thing, well, this has been my year of really embracing artists that moved away from that - "Digital Witness" and "Seasons (Waiting On You)" were my tracks of the year, maybe "Queen" too which were all really bold pop moves. But these tracks really groove in a good way, something to play for the parents back home for Christmas definitely. Partial to "You're Tied" myself on this little a/b side single, but "Mona Lisa" the bonus track is really a formidable track on its own too.
It's nice because if you're going to try and get all classic, at least they're not slapping it with reverb or sweet-surf-slickness like I swear to God at least 10% of bands this year have done and it's really starting to get old, between the Mac wannabes and the Beach Boys wannabes (God bless the Beach Boys and if you're not listening to them and Phil Spector's Christmas albums this holiday I'm not sure what you're doing), they've just got a straight-up and straight-forward straight-counted feel to them. Do put them up on the site I think as they're worth a listen definitely.
I can't help the feeling though that half the bands I've gotten into on the underground this year have just been totally playing off a pre-established sound and am getting a little conflicted because the truth of the matter is, there just isn't an underground song I've heard as good as "Digital Witness" or "Seasons" yet this year, esp. in doing something totally new and maybe that's just me and all but, maybe you've got to have a certain level of confidence and support - both emotional and fan-based and financial - to really have a level of belief to stride forward in a new and totally weird way. Maybe I'm just getting down on things, or I'm getting too high and excited on Future Islands and St. Vincent. Actually I take that back because come to think about it I'm very excited about this Iowa City/Minneapolis scene I'm writing up and interviewing right now - this band Cool Boobs (that name - so bad (!)), which is a side project of Frankie Teardrop actually, has some stuff that I just haven't heard the likes of before. "White Rice" and "Tongue Slips" on their debut record from the beginning of this year are just so exciting. Grating, abrasive, poppy, absolutely crazy, the singer sounds like he's about to break into total madness at any moment and I love it, and a really beautiful graceful distortion about the whole thing. A minute and a half in to "Tongue Slips"? Whoa. Anyhow, enjoy the Holidays.