In one of my recurring dreams, I’m handed an enormous map of an unfamiliar city and discover that it’s written entirely in musical notation. Because I’m a mediocre sight-reader, I find myself hopelessly lost after a few turns. Bossa Nova Boulevard moves along nicely enough until it unexpectedly dead-ends at the Fusion Freeway, leaving me scrambling for the nearest exit. Eventually, I abandon the map and submit to the found sounds of the streets and alleys, not sure if bebop or bhangra or blues will lurk around the next corner, perhaps followed by country-tinged hip hop, harmolodic polka or ukulele death metal.
While New York City didn’t quite become the city of my dreams when I visited last week, the annual Make Music New York festival helped it come close. On solstice day, more than 1000 musical performances in a staggering variety of sounds enveloped the boroughs. Dozens of pianos lined the streets, meaning that if you were in Queens, you might hear someone like teenage conservatory student Lisa Occhino, performing a medley that meshes Lil’ Wayne, Lady Gaga and the Beatles. The Bronx hosted an inspired griot summit of New York-based musicians from Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, and Sierra Leone. Governors Island became Punk Island for the day.
Manhattan had Mexican ballads and a tabla symphony uptown, while downtown, you could find a concerto for bicycles and Wall Street businessmen rocking out on their lunch breaks. Greenwich Village had perhaps the best variety, including traditional shakuhachi players, Gypsy strings and vocals (Barmaljova), Afro-Colombian funk (M.A.K.U. Sound system), singer-songwriter Tracy Bonham with rock classicist Jim Boggia, and the audio gumbo of the Underground Horns. In Washington Square Park, dozens of guitarists remade Outkast’s biggest hit into an urban campfire song.
Some of the most ambitious concerts were projects of Super Critical Mass, an Australian collective that arranges for large numbers of musicians to play the same or similar instruments in public settings, drawing from simple, agreed-upon “algorithms” of sound. Close to sunset in Central Park, the MATA Festival presented one of these, an evocative piece called Swelter in which dozens of brass players collaborated lakeside, calling and responding with swirls of sound enveloping an audience of boaters and onlookers. It wasn’t home, but it was a great place to get lost.
How cool are Brooklyn’s soulful, cerebral art-alt-funk combo TV On the Radio? Never mind their years of critical accolades. Never mind that second vocalist and guitarist Kyp Malone reached the prestigious final round of Stuck Between Stations’ battle of the beards. The real sign they’ve reached the pinnacle is that the Brickshelf Gallery has put them alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Sleater-Kinney and Johnny Cash in their hall of LEGO rock star action figures.
TVOTR’s latest album, Nine Types of Light, may come as a bit of a surprise to anyone who still expects the band to be the ragtag upstarts who released OK Calculator a decade ago by hiding it in sofa cushions in New York coffee shops. For the most part, it’s more relaxed than the band’s earlier work, less frenetic than 2006′s Return to Cookie Mountain and less groove-heavy than 2008′s Dear Science.
The shape-shifting opener “Second Song” comes across as a bit of TV On the Radiohead, at least until the charismatic lead vocalist Tunde Adebimpe lets loose with his falsetto. “Killer Crane,” a gorgeous three-lighter ballad with avian imagery and gratuitous banjo, might have a few old-school fans wondering if they’ve accidentally picked up a Decemberists album. The self-explanatory “Caffeinated Consciousness” comes closest to capturing the Pixies-perfect manic energy from earlier albums. A few other songs seem to get their consciousness from herbal tea and a hot bath. These include the soul stirrer “Will Do,” a love song you could imagine Stevie Wonder singing into a telephone sometime in the eighties.
None of this should suggest that the guys now just sit around watching Oprah and making valentines. TVOTR never were art-punk purists to begin with (nor do they need to be, since that’s why the Lord made Mission of Burma), and they continue to play what the late D. Boon would have called scientist rock. The band’s riveting hour-long “visual reimagining” of Nine Types of Light shows TVOTR fusing lovers’ rock and revolution rock into the same mind-meld. A lot of this could come off as hopelessly pretentious, but the band usually finds the right moment to kick out the jams or segue to a funky new form of future shock. I especially like the video segments that accompany the Parliament-tinged “New Cannonball Blues,” and the Talking Heads-worthy “Repetition,” where survivors of urban anxiety become fish out of water, pushing their way through life during wartime. The songs are bittersweet in light of the sad news that TVOTR’s outstanding bassist Gerard Smith passed away from cancer in April, just after release of the new album.
Someone had better whack me with Peter Gabriel’s sledgehammer before I keep rambling about death-defying high-concept videos and songs with big beats. Adebimpe’s vocals tend to strongly resemble those from PG’s work in the albums following his Genesis exodus. But that’s a very old story, and Adebimpe had the last word on it seven years ago: “At least nobody is comparing anyone in the band to Meat Loaf.” For now, I still love TV On the Radio just the way they are, and have no worries that they will mutate into Mr. Loaf. But if the next album is called Bat Out of Brooklyn, I might start to worry.
TV on the Radio, “New Cannonball Blues”
TV on the Radio, “Repetition”
Sometimes imitation is an insincere form of flattery. When I stumbled upon a new TV game show called Know Ya Boo, I found it reminiscent of the Newlywed Game. That’s mainly because it is a complete ripoff, from the smarmy questions of host Tom Haverford to its strange contestants. But a recent show provided an unexpected musical twist.
Haverford asked the male contestants which rock star their “ladies” would most like to “get with.” Andy, a friendly but dimwitted musician who fronts the modest Indiana band Mouse Rat, replied “that’s easy–me.” But sparks flew after his cynical girlfriend April instead chose Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. Not quite catching on, Andy later predicted that April’s “favorite place to smush” (don’t ask) would be “at the Neutral Milk Hotel.” And why not? After all, who says “love machine” to the ladies better than a reclusive genius whose most acclaimed work, 1998′s In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea, is a surreal concept album based on Anne Frank’s Diary?
Sadly, Know Ya Boo isn’t real. It’s a scene from NBC’s Parks and Recreation, set in the underachieving fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Tom Haverford is really comedian Aziz Ansari, who has previously been spotted stalking M.I.A. and singing songs about duck people with Devendra Banhart. Neutral Milk Hotel, the short-lived leading light of Athens, Georgia’s Elephant 6 collective, is perfectly placed to get an affectionate sendup, given the religious fervor that has built for the the band over the past dozen years on scores of websites and at least one well-researched thesis. Sample blog tribute: “Christianity had Paul. The United States had Federalist papers. Indie rock has Neutral Milk Hotel.” Needless to say, there’s also a ukulele tribute band, Neutral Uke Hotel.
All this fast-track canonization prompted me to stop listening to In the Aeroplane for a few years. I typecast Jeff Mangum, an imaginative guy with a polarizing voice and a low-fi approach to high-concept songwriting, as a shade too precious to reach the pantheon. But it turns out that my dismissal was premature as well. Zach Condon’s first Beirut album, 2006′s Gulag Orkestar, had so many of Mangum’s fingerprints–compressed folk strumming, evocations of Eastern European marching bands, words as travel snapshots–that I gave Aeroplane another spin. I’ve had it in heavy rotation ever since. Far from sounding like he was trying to create the Rosetta Stone of hipster cred, Mangum now sounds to me like a boy awkwardly growing into a man, haunted by a girl’s diary most of us have ignored since high school, willing to risk making a total fool of himself because he had to find a way to sing through his pain. Back in Chicago, we called that the blues.
And one day we will die
And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see
Mangum is finally on tour again, bringing back the evocative title track of Aeroplane . I hope he also covers “Sex Machine.”
Neutral Milk Hotel, “Holland 1945″
Neutral Milk Hotel, “Two-Headed Boy”
Neutral Milk Hotel, “In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea”
The day after the rapture, I drank coffee, watched both my children play soccer, drank more coffee, and ate jambalaya out of a paper container at a food festival in what looked suspiciously like downtown Oakland. In the end, or lack thereof, the armageddon craze led to little more than a flurry of judgment day music playlists, most of which included the most pretentious song ever written (sorry, Jim). It all seemed a little too predictable, until a research tangent led me to something more fun and equally preposterous: Samuel Beckett once served as a chauffeur for Andre the Giant. The Historical Meetups website explains:
In 1953, fresh off the success of Waiting for Godot, Beckett bought a plot of land near the hamlet of Molien, in the commune of Ussy-sur-Marne, about forty miles northeast of Paris. There he built a cottage for himself with some help from a group of locals, including a Bulgarian-born farmer named Boris Rousimoff. Over the years, Beckett and Rousimoff became friends and would occasionally get together for card games. Rousimoff had a son, André, known as Dédé, who was something of a physical marvel. By the age of 12, André was over six feet tall and weighed 240 pounds. No school bus could hold him, and his family lacked the means to buy a car big enough to schlep him back and forth to school in Ussy-sur-Marne. Enter Boris’ old card-playing buddy Beckett, who owned a truck and was more than willing to pay his friend back for his help with the cottage by giving a lift to his enormous pituitary case of a son on his drives into town. Years later, when recounting his conversations with Beckett (which he did often), André the Giant revealed that they rarely talked about anything besides cricket.
Elvis Costello, “Waiting for the End of the World”
John Coltrane, “Giant Steps” (animation by Michal Levy)
For those actually interested in the outcome of the 1862 Battle of Puebla, many of the United States’ Cinco de Mayo celebrations must seem about as Mexican as chop suey. In the ranks of cultural misappropriations for inebriates, it’s right up there with St. Patrick’s Day, except that instead of offering you dyed-green Bud Lite, someone will show you a picture of Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav wearing a sombrero. And you thought 911 was a joke.
But let’s not get too smug about this. 911 was not a joke. Celebration seems in order this week, even if many of us are too tired and numb to find the right words. I’ll dedicate the selections below to the unsung heroes who patiently get their jobs done without bluster and self-promotion. In tribute to Mexico, where millions struggle for basic dignity while caught in a crossfire few of us understand, I’ll throw in some blustery promotion for my favorite Mexican painter and band. Rufino Tamayo, a former wrestler from a Oaxacan Zapotec family, was sometimes derided as too “historical” for resurrecting pre-Hispanic art. Yet his art was both traditional and subversive, finding a riotously colorful new context for centuries of forgotten folklore. Never claiming the only “right” path, he insisted that the fundamental thing in art is freedom.
Much the same could be said for Mexico City’s Cafe Tacuba, a band whose two decades of subersively traditional, traditionally subversive music are captured in a 2010 documentary, Seguir Siendo. Josh Kun’s essay on the band captures the dizzying number of moving parts involved:
Tacuba has always made music that strives to participate in international conversations while being identifiably Mexican. They referenced Mexican cultural history, wore huaraches in their videos, played acoustic contrabajo and acoustic jarana guitar, spliced son jarocho, boleros, and banda into punk, disco, and classical, and sang songs about the metro and falling in love with a chica banda. Their belief that they could be avant-garde without ever having to leave home—which they spelled out on Re (1994)—has made them a favorite of like-minded music boundary-pushers throughout the Americas.
“Seguir Siendo: Cafe Tacuba” (Lado B, Track 1)
Cafe Tacuba, “El Aparato”
Finally, to betray my own Midwestern nerd-rock roots, I’ll close out today’s cross-cultural rambling with a couple of extremely non-Mexican provocateurs who also delight in muddling the traditional and the subversive. The first is by Liz Phair, the almost-famous New York Times journalist and Bollywood rapper. As an Oberlin graduate, she’s highly qualified to rhyme “Cinco de Mayo” with “Burnout Ohio.” The second is by Bob Dylan, who eventually disbanded his Woody Guthrie tribute band to become an ace storyteller and the country’s finest deejay. His chronicles of Yankee power are highly recommended for long walks in the drizzling rain:
Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?
Liz Phair, “Cinco De Mayo”
Bob Dylan, “Isis”
Everyone hearts Bo Diddley, everyone hearts The Clash. And once upon a time it all came together. One can only imagine the evening was slathered in awesomesauce, but “every generation has its own little bag of tricks.” Now about those amp stacks…
Louvin Brothers, “Great Atomic Power”
2011 will be remembered as a perilous and fascinating time. Thousands of protesters filled city streets, unwilling to tolerate assaults on their basic rights. Their out-of-touch head of state was even caught joking about clubbing dissenters. Is this Cairo or Tripoli? No, it’s mild-mannered Madison, Wisconsin.
Comparisons between Mideast and Midwest have obvious limits. Jon Stewart was only partly kidding when he claimed the real danger for Madison protesters was that they risked getting caught in a drum circle. Still, Wisconsin has had its own bumpy ride. For years, Wisconsin remained under the autocratic rule of strongman Brett Favre. The triumphs that followed his departure soon crossed paths with reactionary forces. But those days may be numbered. When Governor Scott Walker recently insisted upon removing public employees’ collective bargaining rights, he enraged leaders of the one institution in Wisconsin more revered than even the Lutheran Church: the world champion Green Bay Packers.
What does this have to do with music? Plenty. Even as Wisconsin returns to the forefront of progressive protest, pundits on both coasts tend to push it to the cultural margins. Ask about the “Wisconsin sound,” and some will think of aging brewers and dairy farmers singing to the cows between Chicago and Minneapolis, and the bored kids trying hard to avoid them. I could walk through the stereotypes, but Cheeseheads With Attitude have already done the job. And don’t call them losers.
In these troubled times, Wisconsin needs and deserves a more compelling soundtrack. To fill this void, I’ve prepared my own Wisconsin-centered playlist.
Violent Femmes, Kiss Off
Robin and the Three Hoods, That’s Tuff
Clyde Stubblefield, Funky Drummer
Hubert Sumlin, Down the Dusty Road
Goose Island Ramblers, No Norwegians in Dickeyville
Spanic Boys, Keep on Walking
Woody Herman, Goosey Gander
Chi Coltrane, Thunder and Lightning
Mustard Men, I Lost My Baby Now
Die Kreuzen, Man in the Trees
Oil Tasters, Get Out of the Bathroom
Les Paul, Vaya Con Dios
Bunky Green, Step High
Richard Davis, Oh My God
Cedarwell, Weirdest Places
Bon Iver, For Emma
For those expecting seas of cheese, the talent of those associated with the Badger State might surprise you. The old-school hall of fame includes the Wizard of Waukesha, guitar innovator Les Paul, as well as longtime Milwaukee resident Hubert Sumlin, who earned his reputation as Howlin’ Wolf‘s guitarist. The incomparable bass work of Madison’s coolest professor, Richard Davis, graces two of my all-time favorite albums, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch.
“Wisconsin” and “funk” aren’t words often heard together. But the mastermind behind the most influential breakbeat has also lived in Madison for decades. That man,Clyde Stubblefield, is the funky drummer behind James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” whose heavily sampled signature riff is a cornerstone of hip-hop and funk. Tap the rhythm and enjoy the nonstop dancing in your head.
I’d better stop this regional rant before it starts sounding like Sufjan Stevens’ next concept album. But in this age of bearded bards in alternative rock, Wisconsin has two of the best. The best known is Bon Iver, whose heralded For Emma, Forever Ago emerged from singer Justin Vernon’s blustery retreat in a Wisconsin cabin. Thankfully, rather than turning into the Unabomber, Vernon produced an album that slowly smolders with surprising strength. More recently, I’ve been listening to Cedarwell, whose excellent 2010 album A Stone, A Leaf, A Door draws its title from one of my favorite novels, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. Both the music and leader Eric Neave’s facial hair make me think of Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam. And as an added bonus, Neave has spent some quality time with Lars from Balcony TV.
The musical heritage of Wisconsin’s European immigrants is also far from the single vanilla flavor some might expect. James Leary’s book Polkabilly: How the Goose Island Ramblers Redefined American Folk Music provides a fascinating look at this largely unheard music of the upper Midwest. Leary provides a great account of how a Goose Island Ramblers performance baffled a panel of experts on traditional regional music:
Here were three men from South Central Wisconsin, togged out variously in Cowboy hats and Viking horns, playing a shifting array of instruments (guitar, mandolin, fiddle, eight string fiddle, one string electric toilet plunger, harmonica, Jew’s harp, jug, piano, accordion, and bandionion), singing in Norwegian, German, Polish, English, and “broken English,” while playing a repertoire that shuffled, bent and fused British and Irish fiddle tunes, ballads, and sentimental songs with Hawaiian marches, Swiss yodels, and the polkas, waltzes, schottisches, and mazurkas of Central and Northern Europe.
This may sound like a fictitious band that someone like Tom Waits might invent to annoy an interviewer. But the Ramblers were real, and really American as well. Music like this isn’t for everyone. I just happen to think that if you really want God to bless the USA, you should stop listening to Lee Greenwood and start learning how to play the electric toilet plunger.
For anyone over 40 (or maybe 30), having a music collection probably means that, in addition to racks of CDs and ridiculous piles of MP3s, you’re also sitting on bookshelves (or “borrowed” milk crates) full of vinyl LPs. Hundreds of pounds of space-consuming, damage-prone vinyl. LPs were music you could touch, with glorious full-color 12″ album art, meandering liner notes, and the practical involvement of lowering needle to plastic. Long-playing records represent an era when music was less disposable – we actually sat down to listen, rather than treating music as a backdrop to the rest of life. Dragging a rock through vinyl was not some kind of nostalgic love affair with the past – it was just the way things were. The cost of admission was pops and scratches, warped discs, having to get up in the middle of an album to flip the disc, cleaning the grooves from time to time, and getting hernias every time you moved to a new apartment.
Digitizing LPs has almost nothing in common with ripping CDs. It’s a slow process, and a lot of work. But it can be incredibly rewarding, and going through the process puts you back in touch with music the way it used to be played (i.e. it’s a great nostalgia trip). Over at birdhouse.org, I’ve written up a guide which I hope will thorougly cover the process of prepping your gear, cleaning your records, and capturing as much of the essence of those old LPs as possible, so you can enjoy them in the context of your digital life.
The UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism recently hosted a panel discussion titled
The Future of Music Journalism: Computer or Curator?, with the following lure:
Critics and tastemakers have been talking about, reviewing, and exposing music to the masses for generations. With the advent of sophisticated algorithms, computer programs such as Pandora and Apple Genius are now suggesting new or unusual music for listeners.
Tim Westergren, Founder, Pandora
Doug Brod, Editor-in-Chief, Spin
Joel Selvin, Senior Pop Music Critic, San Francisco Chronicle
Niema Jordan, Executive Editor, 38th Notes
The panelists debated “algorithms and blues,” wondering aloud whether technology has freed listeners from music journalists — or made them more valuable than ever. The discussion had a bit of trouble focusing on the topic at hand – many seemed more interested in the completely worn-out question of the impact of blogging on journalism. Fair enough – there are a hell of a lot of excellent music blogs out there, and there’s no question they soak up a lot of eyeballs/traffic that formerly went to Rolling Stone and Spin. But at the same time, very few of the music blogs have the expertise, or go into the depth that RS and Spin do. Still, it’s a pretty tired question by now.