Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Best of 20TEN:

10) Yellow Swans-Going Places

9) White Fence-White Fence

8) Beach Fossils-Beach Fossils

7) The National-High Violet

6) Girls-Broken Dreams Club

5) Avey Tare-Down There

4) Deerhunter-Halycon Digest

3) Pantha du Prince-Black Noise

2) Sufjan Stevens-The Age of Adz

1) Women-Public Strain

Monday, September 20, 2010

Wood and Straw (explained)

Antoni Tapies on viewing modern art and his painting Wood and Straw:

Above all, if one does not play the "game" with a certain predisposition, no explanation will suffice, and it won't be fun for anyone. It is, in a way, the prior condition that must exist in one who prepares to attend a magic show, a feat of prestidigitation. And if one is not willing to let himself be 'put under' these spells that consitute the convention known as "art", we need not go any further. Just look at what happens to the spectator who enters the salon where the sleight of hand is to take place intent on only discovering the trick. The more tricks he finds, the more foolish the show seems because, in truth, it's all smoke and mirrors, a pure deceit that gives pleasure only to the unsuspecting innocent willing to be deceived. That's exactly where the fun is! And what fun it is! And how poetic! The whole ceremony, all those movements, all those colors, all that essential purity in telling us "now you see it now you don't," and that the rabbits and the objects are transformed even as they remain the same, and that they multiply, and that they melt, and that they grow and shrink. And fish turn into birds, and an empty trunk produces a young princess, and the stroke of a fan makes flowers grow, while coins come out of the ears of the most unbelieving.

I imagine the greatest surprise for the viewer who comes in unaware must certainly be the fact of finding this sort of pile of straw in an exhibition hall, where until recently one went to see more "important things". If the viewer gives us the benefit of the "magical spell", he will see, of course, that the artist has, from the outset, meant to make "art"-for we are not dealing with a pile of hay in a haystack, but one that is placed in the form of a painting in a place where art is usually served up-although with a very poor material. The first clue, then, is that the "magician"-in this case, the artist-that traditional specialist who has always dealt in the deep things of life, has chosen today this humble foundation, this straw, as a topic worthy of consideration.

So what's going on? Do those once favored by the muses no longer paint heavenly things? Do those who had always dealt with the great solemn occascions no longer glorify their lords nor anyone else in their grace? Well, no. Artists, who consider themselves the most refined, the most sensitive of beings, haven't believed in all that in years. No one is important enough for them, and they would like society to believe that as well. Instead, they fall in love with straw. And now the viewer's right of imagination can begin to go into action. We have all seen clumps of hay in a stable. But perhaps finding them here, on the scene of "important" things, the highest wisdom is incarnated in the poorest body. To reflect upon straw, upon manure, is to meditate on upon the first things, on the most natural things, on the origin of force and life. Because the artist feels, and this is nothing new, that this origin, this life source, this fertilizer that makes the earth fecund, the "salt of the earth" truly resides in those who struggle from below, who sleep, even if it is symbolically, in the straw of miserable huts, or on the pallets of so many prisons, or amid the stink of the manure in the stable for "heretics" or in the fields where those who are considered trash leave behind their sweat. And this is not out of sentimentalism nor any "artistic" tastse for poverty, but to allow for an understanding of the "primary nature" of the dialectics, and struggle of all things, naturally including, the class struggle. Because, what's more, the painting also contains a piece of wood that divides it in two. Two. Students of symbolisms of art would say much more than I about this "two". They would speak of opposition, conflict, balance, creator and thing created, black and white, male and female, yin and yang, life and death, good and evil, high and low. And both spaces are white. White. The color of the beginning and the end, the color of one who is about to change his condition, the color of absolute silence, which as Kandinsky put it, is the preparation of all living possibilities, for all the joys of youth.

Naturally there will always be someone who will say" "What is this guy talking about? There's nothing but a bunch of straw mane stuck to a white canvas with a plain old stick in the middle!" And we'll have to say he's right. He saw through the trick. All this show in fact is nothing unless we want or are able to see more than what there is. But the artist doesn't feel frustrated by this any more than thinks he's a failure, or the magician feels ridiculed. What right does this positivistic viewer have not to allow others to give free rein to their "imaginations"? And we still hear those that cry: "The imaginings of an impotent magician! No one will ever see so much philosophy in this! It is the art of pretension and vanity!" And the author must confess again, that they are right, that he too agrees. And perhaps it is precisely for this reason, for this fear of vanity, that he has chosen to make a painting of straw. Because he no longer believes in anything that can be glorified today but the most elementary, the purest, the most unpolluted, and even the most innocent things, on condition, of course, that these things be ready to catch fire. Because he sees that this is the only thing that keeps the world alive. This is life. And he doesn't want to hear anything more about the hierarchies and disguises asssumed by those who think they are important, but who are really dead. For the painter there is nothing more than a pile of straw, and a "two". And a "two" that is really a "one". And everyone has the right to tell him that he's a farceur, that this is all a lie, a deceit. Because he thinks so too. A painting is nothing. It is a door that leads to another door. Art, no matter how excellent, will always be just one more manifestation of maya, of the deception at the core of everything. And the truth that we seek will never be found in a painting, but will only appear behind the last door that the observer learns to open with his own strength. And the more important the painting, the more important the personages painted in it, and the more colors and coats of paint there are, the thicker will be the veil that darkens the truth, and the less we will find the path.

But let it be clear that nothing is hidden here. We have always said that these things were very important to us, but we have also said, right from the start, that they are not serious in the manner of those who think themselves too wise. Because art is a game and-who can say this is not true of all human acts?-only on condition that we become quite innocent will we truly capture its deep meaning.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Little Mid-Year Review

10 Albums Worthy of Attention...

1) Pantha du Prince-Black Noise
2) White Fence-s/t
3) Menomena-Mines
4) The National-High Violet
5) The Strange Boys-Be Brave
6) Beach Fossils-s/t
7) Yellow Swans-Going Places
8) The Radio Dept-Clinging to a Scheme
9) Tabacco-Maniac Meat
10) Perfume Genius-Learning

...and 10 Tracks Too:

1) Panda Bear-'Tomboy'
2) Women-'Eyesore'
3) Strange Boys-'Be Brave'
4) Girls-'Oh, Boy"
5) Menomena-'Taos'
6) White Fence-'Mr. Adams'
7) The National-'Lemonworld'
8) Beach Fossils-'Daydream'
9) Thee Silver Mt. Zion-'I Built Myself a Metal Bird'
10) !!!-AM/FM

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Panda Bear - Berlin HAU 2

Seeing Panda Bear perform in Berlin last weekend at the Hebbel Am Ufer 2 was nothing short of astonishing. The man behind the moniker, Noah Lennox, is firstly known for being 1/3 of Animal Collective, the most prodigious indie band of the last decade. When he’s not touring or writing music with them (check off 9 albums now), he resides in Portugal with his wife and kid and still finds time to make some of the most open-minded music to be conceived a single person. Now while never having played Berlin solo before, one would've suspected him to perform an evenhanded mix of stuff off his two albums, Young Prayer (quietly came out in ‘04 in response to his father’s death, recorded in the same house he passed away in) and of course, Person Pitch (took several ‘07 Album of the Year honors for its endless layering of samples, sun-warped rhythms and Brian Wilson-like vocal textures) but more on that in a minute...

In a room swarming with fashion-forward Berliners, all eyes quickly rested on the most unassuming person in the whole place, who was wearing nothing but a washed out t-shirt, jeans and slip-ons. With no stage lights on him and no introduction, Panda Bear commanded the stage for over an hour with only an electric guitar, a small synth, two mixers and a mic. Oh yeah, and he didn’t play a single thing off either of his two beloved albums. Instead, Panda projected a montage of new work onto us without asking for permission or delivering any apologies. With equal parts dark/primitive to romantic/auspicious, you could almost hear each song spell out a different provocation: "Who cares about what I've done before?...Who cares what the concert promoters want out of me?... Who cares about how much better the state of the world was in a few years ago?...Why care about anything else besides being present in this very moment, together?"And before we knew it, the whole room was seemingly brainwashed into letting go of the past and all in favor of lionizing the future.

Then, just as modestly as he had appeared, he was gone. No mindless banter. No self-promoting. No indie smugness. Just music. Pure and unbridled, for a new decade....On the way out, I glanced at the merch table in the back and found there were zero Panda Bear lp's/cd's, stickers or hoodies for sale. Just one shirt layed there and it looked like it had been drawn on with a half-dead Sharpie...perhaps by his daughter even. Oh, if only the rest of the music world would invest more time on their craft and less time on their convoluted haircuts, tiresome wardrobes and splashy merchandise, I think we would all be more excited about what possibilities the future holds...and not just musically.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Anarchy of Silence

While recently in Spain over the holidays, I got the pleasure of viewing the immense John Cage retrospective at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. At the very least, Cage is the American composer responsible for defining the radical practice of ‘experimental’ musical composition that ultimately changed the course of modern music and art forever. By relentlessly questioning the conventions of music, Cage took a wrecking ball to every formal and structural cornerstone that had been set in place from centuries past, clearing the air for equally important thoughts such as chance, fragility and uncertainty. Aptly titled The Anarchy of Silence, the sweeping exhibition is the first to move through Cage’s 50 year career since his passing in 1992, roving decade by decade with thrilling ease.

The museum introduces the viewer to John Cage with his early percussion pieces of the 1930s and the idea that one must be equally open to arbitrary noise as to conventionally understood musical sounds. With several headphones strewn along on the walls, one could eavesdrop on the spectrum of ground-breaking sounds he created from highly unorthodox ‘instruments’ (rice bowls, bathtubs, etc). For myself, I couldn’t help but reflect on the ocean of musicians I adore who have since operated out of his bold rhythmic enterprising. Moving into the 1940s, Cage’s ‘prepared piano’ sat alone with its lid open, giving us spectators a chance to view the array of scandalous objects he inserted between the strings. By placing everything from screws to eraser heads inside, not only did Cage produce a whole new continuum of sounds for the piano but he also managed to emasculate a firm instrument of bourgeois culture at that time.

Through the 1950s, sometimes even before hostile audiences, Cage extended the idea of using chance in the process of writing musical scores as well as into the realm of performance. As expected, Cage’s landmark work, 4’33", was realized in this exhibition in several versions. This ‘silent’ composition, whose content is meant to be perceived as the sounds of the environment that the listener hears while it is 'performed' (rather than 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence) is presumably the most dynamic conceptual object to come out of the 20th century. Furthermore, many of Cage’s beautiful water and radio scores were also represented from this same period. In the 1960’s and beyond, John Cage became increasingly interested in media-based works that ruptured the ideas of authorship as well as attention. One the strongest pieces of the exhibition was his computer-generated slide, sound and film installation titled HPSCHD, which was presented in one of the final galleries of the show.

Lastly, the show explored Cage’s friendship and influence on several monumental artists including Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik. The museum displayed a number of stunning pieces from each of these visual pioneers and if you managed to look close enough, you could almost see Cage’s fingerprints quietly on them. Taken as a whole, MACBA did a tremendous job of clearly proving that without John Cage, the art and music of the last 80 years would have unfolded very differently…and certainly more drearily.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top 10 of 2009

10) Mono-Hymn to the Immortal Wind

Everything a good post-rock instrumental band should be: Goliath-sized builds, inevitable pummeling, and cascading descents all driven by implausible guitar work and strings from another world. This Japanese quartet, who carries around a 28-piece orchestra, knows how to summon an army of sound in a matter of seconds and then retreat just as quickly. Hymn to the Immortal Wind is purely cinematic, with wonderful drama and perfect pacing....

9) Micachu and the Shapes-Jewellery

Glass-breaking, pots-and-pans banging, raunchy synth-pop. Mica Levi happens to be a 21 year old classically trained instrumentalist who would rather play homemade guitars and a Hoover vacuum instead. Her sound is kinda like a love triangle between Blood Brothers Crimes, MIA’s Arular and Bow Wow Wow ‘s When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going. As expected, this album is pertinent for the iPod/ADHD generation, seeing that only two songs barely make it over the 3 minute mark. ‘Jewellery’ is an incredibly progressive debut that is straight-up fun. Plus, when you have Bjork out there repping you, you know Mica's phone isn't the only thing that's golden...

8) The Antlers-Hospice

The gut-wrenching forthrightness that comes from this record is astonishing. The album sits at the bedside of a terminally ill child named Sylvia and takes you through the spectrum of emotions you would feel as the hospice worker assigned to her, whether you might want to own up to them or not. The lyrics are certainly the best of the year, seemingly ripped straight from a journal: There was glass inside my feet and raining down from the ceiling, it opened up the scars that had just finished healing. It tore apart the canyon running down your femur (I thought that it was beautiful, it made me a believer.) And as it opened I could hear you howling from your room, but I hid out in the hall until the hurricane blew.’ At the end of the record, its startling how one person’s catharsis can end up being equally shared by the listener...

7) Real Estate-s/t

With ten tracks that gently billow with anticipation, guilt, and melancholy, this Woodsist four piece has captured the youthful honesty of a last bonfire before school starts again. While Real Estate's stratocasters cozy up to the likes of the Shadows and the Feelies, their laid-back harmonies create a sparkling panorama of the most unlikely of places, the Jersey shore. Originally hailing from there, it's quite a wonder how their decades of pollution troubles didn't manage to seep onto this recording (Syringe Tide anyone?). But that's just it I suppose...nostalgia is always a little washed-out and by its own nature, wonderfully forgiving...

6) The Dirty Projectors-Bitte Orca

The Dirty Projectors follow up a fantastic record, Rise Above, with an even more ambitious one that is full of astounding contrasts. It’s unpredictable yet accessible; playful yet virtuosic. Bitte Orca is crammed full of incredible musicianship and unorthodox time-signatures that Zappa himself would be proud of, all while making you want to shake and shimmy. With melodic bravery and pop sensibilities, these art-rockers have packed up and moved out of our planet and I can’t even begin to imagine where they’ll land next...

5) Here We Go Magic-s/t

Bought out of sheer happenstance, this record started out as a pleasantly likable album that slowly burned into a surprise go-to-record for any occasion this year. Luke Temple’s first release under the HWGM moniker is certainly the most unpretentious indie record to come out this year. Think dense Eno-esque multi-track vocals over perfectly restrained acid-folk rhythms, hazy electronica and minimalistic guitar ad infintum. Recorded on a 4-track, this ultra lo-fi album is like basking in a lazy river of sonic bliss that you’ll never want to get out of....

4) Grizzly Bear-Veckatimest

Grizzly Bear surpassed all our expectations this year. After two previous albums that were delicately modest, this record came out brimming with confidence right from the start. Instead of the vocals being awash in some distant reverb, this time the dual vocalists become the shepherds in which the music faithfully follows. And boy do they cover some seriously beautiful and uncultivated terrain. With flourishing string arrangements, complex guitar narratives and fantastic drumming (which is also much more prominent this time around), Grizzly Bear has finally matured into its namesake. There’s so much to take in on this album, I recommend an expensive set of headphones and a good old fashioned record player...

3) The Strange Boys-And Girls Club

The Strange Boys proper debut is actually anything but that. With 16 ramshackle tunes that sound more like something off Chess Records instead of In the Red, these youngsters conjure up the rhythm and blues spirits of Diddley, Berry and Lenoir in a gritty-pop sound all their own. Lead singer, Ryan Sambol, sounds like a sauced young Dylan whose blurred together jocularity and deviousness, while the guitars and drums jangle around him with a Kinda Kinks temper. If, like me, you find yourself watching American Bandstand infomercials instead of what's on MTV2, then take heart! Go grab some moonshine out of your dad's cabinet, your prized white bucks and prepare to boogie your troubles away...

2) Animal Collective-Merriweather Post Pavilion

Merriweather Post Pavilion opened up the beginning of 2009 blooming with the utmost of musical integrity and freshness. This record is a noise collage of technicolor chants, tribal beats, and waves of synths that linger long after the needle stops circling. While each vocal hook snags you in the cheek and forces you to sing along, the lyrics bestow importance on such commonplace things as appreciating ‘the subtleties of taste buds’ in that very same mouth. Avey, Panda, and Geologist proved once again that there is still no other band making this kind of music right now. Not a single track is weak or flawed and MPP is overwhelmingly joyful from start to finish. Basically, this record is like Zoloft for your ears...

1) Girls-Album

Forget the umpteen blogs and stranger than fiction back story. Forget the Beach Boys, Elvis Costello and Spiritualized references. Hell, even forget their sunbeamy, acid-washed videos you've dreamt about being in. So then how did two San Francisco burnouts manage to stand out from the rest of the field this year? Cynics might contend that it's one or all of the reasons listed previously, but if you're willing to look a little deeper, you'll find it's actually much more artful than that.

Firstly, from beginning to end, Album is classic American pop songwriting at its best. Girls perfectly showcase a simplicity of form and finish that is as electrifying as it is resourceful. Front man Christopher Owens, dumpster-dives through music's glutinous past and manages to assemble a fresh spread of surf rock, AM pop, shoegaze, lo-fi noise punk, psychedelia and girl-group ballads. While his guitar is busy breaking a sweat, it's the elasticity of Christopher's voice that carries each new song structure with grace and ease. Staying behind the scenes, bassist JR White delivers just enough glint to his perfectly disheveled counterpart, with production details that are intelligent and just plain old lovely. Solely recorded on reel-to-reel tapes in various bedrooms, you can almost feel the misty effects of alcohol being mixed with painkillers on your stereo speakers. For all intents and purposes, Album is a DIY masterpiece that is instantly familiar as well as highly idiosyncratic.

Secondly, there isn't a shred of irony or cynicism to be found anywhere on this recording. Unlike the other 99.9% of bands out there today who would concede warmth and sincerity as a weakness, it is actually what gives Album its guts and staying power. From Christopher's crushing first words "I wish I had a loving man in my life, I wish I had a father, maybe then I would've turned out right" to his mid-album admission "I don't wanna cry my whole life through, I wanna do some laughing too" to the record's hope-filled finish "...but i found a friend in the song I'm singing...and's coming straight from my heart, and yeah...I gotta let it go", he teaches us that vulnerability isn't a weakness at all, but actually a marvellous strength. Because like all seasoned skateboarders or senseless drunk-drivers know, those who remain open and limber, live to tell about it. And fortunately for the rest of us, they have.

And lastly, the honorable mentions:

1) Sun Araw-Heavy Deeds
2) HEALTH-Get Color
3) Antony and the Johnsons-The Crying Light

4) Wavves-s/t
5) Laura Gibson-Beasts of Season