Fat Cat Plankton

Nonsense in extensia

Saturday, July 31, 2004

I Got Lists Like VH1

Article 3.87 Section 12 of the Pop Critic Guidebook mandates that I must start a separate blog where I list my top albums and singles of the year. You can find it here.

Some notable low-ballin' -

36. The Streets - A Grand Don't Come for Free
Terrific lyrics, brilliant concept, but where are the tunes? The idea of listening to literature doesn't interest me unless Morgan Freeman is reading it, but that's essentially all I'm getting here, cuz the hooks are either nonexistent or weak as Skinner's upper torso. It's a major letdown from OPM, which certainly had novelty on its side but also sounded scrappier, more playful and unorthodox, the ragtag beats 'n' tings definitely a better fit for those shaggy-dog tales than A Grand's whole-cloth narrative, which would seem to demand a bit more fittingly resplendent backdrop (any chance I get to use resplendent, I'm takin' it). Basically, I decided I only have room in my life this year for one thematic monstrosity, and it's Blueberry Boat, which is loads more fun.

More later (Wilco, Iron and Wine, Franz, and Junior Boys)...

Friday, July 30, 2004

I Walked Home From the TCBY Each Night With No Fear

Quick 'n' Easy Guide to Listening to the Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat

1. Press play

2. Listen for two and a half minutes

3. Press pause

4. Walk the dog, wash the dishes, check your email, dye your hair, volunteer at a soup kitchen, take a trip to the Pottery Barn, send out thank-you cards, make a dentist appointment, register to vote, read TV Guide, chew your fingernails

5. Repeat

Seriously, I don't understand how this album seems so daunting to so many people.

"I don't know where to begin."

"I can't make it through the first song."

"There's just too much going on."

"I've gotten lost and I can't find my way out."

"Send in reinforcements."

"Tell my mother I love her."

Yep, Blueberry Boat will forever be remembered as The Album That Blotted Out The Sun. Or not. Seriously, how hard is it to find something to grab onto here? By my count, there's about two dozen terrifically glittering pop songs spread across 13 tracks, if you listen at random to any point on the album, chances are you're no more than a minute away from hearing something joyous, dizzying, hilarious, endearing, exciting, or just plain rockin'. Admittedly, the opener, "Quay Cur," is a bit of a slow cooker, so maybe that's where the trepidation lies, but do yourself a favor today and spend some time with Blueberry Boat. You'll be glad you did.

I No Longer Hear the Music

I'm having a really hard time getting into this new Libertines record. That's probably a bad sign, especially considering the kind of music they play isn't exactly the sort of stuff that takes weeks to reveal itself. I keep telling Lauren that 20 years from now Pete's prolly not gonna remember making this album at all. She thinks they're the bee's knees, and I was inclined to agree based on Up the Bracket, which was insanely derivative but also superb. Ha, listening to the CD right now and "The Saga" rips off the intro the REM's "Leave." "Can't Stand Me Now" is nifty and seemed to maybe herald a new direction for The Libs, but it's pretty much downhill from there. "The Man Who Would Be King" is nicely textured though lyrically kind of slight. Hmm, can't really say a whole lot about the rest. Seems like Lauren still plays Up the Bracket more than the new one. This is another bad sign.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

One Faye Wong Fan Can't Be Wrong

Lauren's studying Asian cinema this summer semester, and I've tried to watch as many of the films as possible with her. Our latest is Chungking Express, an oddly structured, typically madcap mid-90s Hong Kong romantic comedy presented in the US by Quentin Tarantino’s production company, Rolling Thunder. In his little informational postscript after the film, Quentin mentions that, unbeknownst to me, Chungking’s lead actress Faye Wong is a major pop star in her native country – Tarantino calls her Hong Kong’s equivalent to Madonna. While I can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of that statement, I can report to the uninformed that Faye Wong makes some truly gripping, genuinely evocative music, and is certainly more than deserving of whatever celebrity she enjoys overseas.

Of course, Quentin had to throw in the aside that just about every guy he knows who’s seen Chungking has developed a crush on Faye Wong, and so now Lauren thinks I’m smitten with her ‘cause of how quickly I went out in search of her music – just doin’ my job, y’know? Truth be told, I didn’t find Faye’s character in the film terribly appealing – her performance was quite good, but her subject was just a little too self-consciously quirky and purposefully enigmatic to be truly likable. Maybe it’s just Hong Kong’s own peculiar roadmap for romance, but personally I found the love tussle just plain wearying in its nonsensical restraint and forced irresolution (though the film itself proved undeniably delightful, especially for how it tackled well-trodden themes like loneliness and courtship in such unexpected and offbeat ways).

Faye Wong’s music, however, is another matter. In short, it’s great, at least judging from the one album I heard, 2000’s Fable. Faye has collaborated with the Cocteau Twins in the past, and their influence/kindred spirit is evident in her vocals, though hers are much more entrancing and suggestive than Liz Fraser’s, plus the music is nowhere near as gossamer or ephemeral. For the most part it’s reminiscent of trip-hop, the real shit too, not the thin Dido facsimile. This stuff is deep and substantial and expansive, and Faye goes heavy on the orchestras to boot, very Bjork-like in how she dispenses them (think “Isobel), often trailing behind and repeating the melody, especially on “Farewell Firefly.” The first five songs lull you into mellow, contemplative meditation, then Faye hits you square between the eyes with giddy, irrepressible perfection on “If You Were Unreal,” one of the sweetest, greatest pure pop songs I’ve heard in some time. Listening to it right now as I type makes me so retardedly happy I don’t know whether to smile, laugh, or cry.

Postscript -

It's such an eye-opening joy driving at night listening to music where you don't understand any of the words, just for how it makes you notice and marvel at surroundings you always take for granted. English-speaking tunes just fit so comfortably into the roadside scenery that they naturally become a part of it, hearing on our radios the same words that peer back at us from gas stations, billboards, and street signs. The normalcy of everything that meets the eye is constantly reinforced through the music, creating an isolationist mindset that never conceives of any other way. With Faye Wong angelically cooing God-knows-what over surprisingly sturdy trip-hop beats, the world outside the windshield takes on a markedly different hue. Her voice is clearer, purer, and truer than any all-night neon buzzing, so that everything in that brightly blurring landscape starts to feel alien, unimaginably weird. Where the fuck am I? I feel like the alien, set down in a strange land of commercial desolation and culture-less uniformity. In the calm-reasoning light of day I'm reminded the latter isn't true, and I can just appreciate Faye's wonderful vocal phrasing and slightly submerged but ever-present pop sense instead.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

20 Songs Soon To Be Burned Into My Skull

Madden 2005 Soundtrack :

Wylde Bunch - "Last Day of School"
New Found Glory - "This Disaster"
Earshot - "Wait"
Hoobastank - "Same Direction"
Ozomatli - "Saturday Night"
Jazze Pha - "Da Heavy Hittas"
Strata - "Piece By Piece"
Yung Wun - "Yung Wun Anthem"
Z-Trip feat. Soup of J5 - "Listen to the DJ"
The D.O.C. vs. Earshot - "The Madden Re-Match"
Will.I.Am - "Go!"
Hazen Street - "Fool the World"
Midtown - "Give It Up"
Alter Bridge - "Open Your Eyes"
Green Day - "American Idiot"
JR Ewing - "Time to Get Dirty"
The Hives - "Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones"
Mooney Suzuki - "Alive and Amplified"
Chevelle - "The Clincher"
Faith No More - "From out of Nowhere" (Throwback Track Powered by Rhino)
Franz Ferdinand - "Take Me Out"

Analysis: Much more middling than last year, which ran a dizzying gamut of great hip-hop tracks (then brand-new Big Boi, Bubba Sparxxx, and Nappy Roots, plus Joe Budden and Bone Crusher) and completely execrable mall punk (Yellowcard, Gob, Adema). Punk obviously got an upgrade with The Hives and Mooney Suzuki (garage-punk but still), and it's nice to see the Ferdies even though I'm already beyond tired of "Take Me Out." But where's the high-quality hip-hop? Nice seeing Jazze Pha, and Z-Trip's worth inclusion, but c'mon, you couldn't find a way to get Young Gunz or T.I. or Twista involved? Inexcusable.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Anyone Can Play Neil Young's Guitar

Is it just me, or is everyone trying to play guitar like Neil Young nowadays? Pearl Jam caught a bunch of flak back in the day for joining forces with 'ol Shakey to create insta-classic-rock, but PJ never actually sounded like Neil, never actually played their guitars exactly like him.

Fast forward to 2004, and everywhere you look, awkwardly overearnest, vaguely rootsy neo-trads have appropriated Neil's messy, buzzy, overamped guitar tone and beautifully inelegant playing style, exactly why I don't know, probably trying to artificially lend some of Neil's wounded animal grace to their own songs w/o having to think of a new way of doing it. Neil's guitar solos let you know this was a humble guy who was grappling with Big Problems, an Everyman ill-equipped to handle great burdens and challenges but resigned to give it a shot, knowing he would pour every ounce of his unworthy self into something that was doomed to failure. The solos are both a brilliant ruse demanding underestimation and a painfully heroic act of self-martyrdom, Neil skewering himself for failures that were wholly self-orchestrated. It was a distinctly lonely place those solos occupied, always Neil by himself fighting against the current, against the elements, against the other instruments, against the notion of what lead guitar was "supposed" to sound like.

And then you wonder why Allison Moorer, Jeff Tweedy, and David Bazan would want to manufacture those same struggles in their own music? All three want desperately to be taken seriously as artists of substance and considerable gravity, and all of them are very good at positing themselves as the lonely, tortured genius in the reluctant spotlight. Moorer on The Duel's "I Ain't Giving Up on You," Tweedy on AGIB's "At Least That's What You Said," and Bazan on Achilles Heels' "Keep Swinging" - in each case, it's all about stacking the deck overwhelmingly in the opposition's favor, then fighting back valiantly armed with nothing but a makeshift, rudimentary guitar.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

You think cuz of this blonde mop that's on top that I've gone pop?!

If you'da told me two years ago that I'd have a blog and my first real post would be about Brandy, I prolly woulda flung an Anticon CD at you.  OK, so maybe it wasn't quite that bad, but even as recently as a year ago I was railing against the bullshit populism I felt was encroaching on rockcrit, and now half the time I sound like a hardliner myself, big-upping T.I. instead of Illogic, Gretchen Wilson instead of Jolie Holland, JoJo instead of Wilco (I'll stop now, promise).  Have I just been drinking too much of the ILM Kool-Aid?  I'd like to think that part of me was just unnecessarily biased against pop before and that now I try to give everything a fair shake, but honestly it kind of frightens me that I could do such a complete 180 on the whole dichotomy in such a short period of time. 

I still think it's way too easy to defend a populist stance cuz you can always call out your underground assailants as elitists and then cling to the moral high ground of being a man of the people who doesn't insult the mainstream's intelligence.  My girlfriend (henceforth Lauren cuz I'll mention her bunches on here) quite capably skewered me on this point recently in the middle of an overriding argument that I'd gone pop to be consciously anti-indie (if only she knew!), wondering how I could guilelessly defend the consumer choices of the average American music listener when I so frequently scoffed at those same people's choice of movies, television shows, books, etc.  Not that I really scoff at the people themselves, but I am still pretty much an elitist when it comes to all other mediums besides music, and I betcha most other music critics are as well but never think about it.  Honestly, how many rockcrits read Grisham or watch The Bachelor 2 or raved to their friends about The Bourne Supremacy?  Certainly not me, but like Kanye I'm just the first to admit it.

Or maybe it's just "pop" music is inherently better than all other forms of popular entertainment.  I'd like to think that's true, and listening to Ludacris, Kevin Lyttle, Los Lonely Boys, or Lloyd Banks certainly seems to corroborate that theory, but then again maybe I've just preconditioned myself to gravitate towards that stuff now, who knows.

There's loads more I could get into on this topic and plan to do just that sometime soon (meta-fun!), basically in terms of the pure pleasure of sound and whether other mediums offer that same kind of instant gratification that overrides any potential thematic shortcomings (b/c after all, don't we intellectual types watch movies and read books to get some kind of insight on something?  Obv. it doesn't have to be some philosophical exposition, but most of the time we at least demand something that's gonna cause us to look at ourselves and our world a little differently, something that at least challenges us in some small way - of course, any movie involving Will Ferrell is automatically exempt from such qualifications).

Also, when Lauren and I were having that heated discussion on my pop-slutitude, she quite rightly took a detour into the stickly realm of misogyny, which is something I definitely want to revisit even though I know it's been done absolutely to death - ain't that what blogs are fer?!

Oh yeah, and somehow this was supposed to come back to Brandy.  Erm, Afrodisiac is great and I was just thinking how much I like it better than Alicia Keys' last album and what that says about my listening habits now, when two years ago I would have cottoned to A. Keys' nu-soul way quicker than Brandy's Timbo-pop.  I'm reviewing Afrodisiac for Stylus and so I've been thinking alot about it lately, obviously.  More on that later, but for now I'm just marvelling at how many truly great, catchy, moving songs are on it - "Focus" "Turn it Up" "Finally" and "I Tried" especially.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Intro (3 White Angry Country Men)

I've come to the realization that in order to be Taken Seriously as a Music Journalist (ignore obvious oxymoronic implications), one must have A Blog where one posts Serious And Trenchant Treatises On The State Of Popular Music.  Or pictures of their cat.

For right now, however, I'm just gonna use the blog as a means to work out some of the ideas I have in my head, throw 'em against the wall and see what sticks, basically.  Hopefully using the blog to grapple with some of my arguments and crackpot theories will help me better articulate those concepts in my actual writing.

Music writing's pretty much the only thing I'm good at (edit: Music writing's the only thing at which I'm good?  Whatever).   Anyway, there's a bunch of other great writers out there, and while they might not see me as competition, I do see them that way, albeit in a friendly way, and hence I'm always pushing myself to be a better music writer (notice that I don't say "critic" - I've always hated that term and anytime people ask me what I do and I try to make myself sound slightly more important than a customer service representative (which is my full-time job), I tell 'em I'm a "music writer" - maybe it's just me, but the term "critic" implies much more of a snooty, discriminating nature, someone whose job it is to discern what's good from what's bad - which is only part of what I do - a passer of judgments and most likely an inveterate grouch).