Monday, March 22, 2010

Album Review: Deerhunter: Rainwater Cassette Exchange EP

Rainwater Cassette Exchange (EP)
4AD / Kranky, 2009

Paul's rating: 8.0/10

Just so you're aware, if you buy Rainwater Cassette Exchange on vinyl, it's a 45-RPM disc. Normally I wouldn't feel the need to point this out, even though it's indicated nowhere on the labels or sleeve. But anyone who's listened to Cryptograms, Deerhunter's first album, might think the sound at 33 RPM is exactly what Deerhunter was going for. The sort of thing my dad calls "gas music from Jupiter." It took me a few minutes to figure it out. It's a 12-inch disc, so I started with the assumption it was a 33.

As it turns out, RCE is poppy and accessible, absent the long, droning, trippy instrumental tracks that comprised most of Cryptograms. Which is not to say it's exactly uplifting. Two weeks of misery / Capture my heart and destroy me / Destroy my mind and my body / Invade me like as disease and conquer me are the opening words, contrasting against the sunny, almost tropical jangle of of the guitars.

This seems to be the trend of Deerhunter's work - Introspective and scary as ever, but increasingly accessible. Well, relatively accessible - It's not like they're in any danger of cracking the Top 40.

What I like about EPs is their lack of commercial motives. They can offer insights into an artist's creative process, being such an opportunity for unfettered artistic freedom. This seems the case even in instances when the EP may be an outlet (or less euphemistically, dumping ground) for songs that didn't make the cut for the full-length, and there's some evidence that may be the case here, as the track "Famous Last Words" echoes the motifs of "Never Stops" from Microcastle/Weird Era Continued, the band's most recent (double) full-length, which is absolutely a better fit for that album. Nonetheless, it stands on its own, as do all five of RCE's songs. The fact that they share some of the previous work's devices for mood, hooks and atmosphere can lend a fan like myself a better understanding of just what makes Deerhunter, especially the prolific frontman Bradford Cox, tick. All the songs are rewarding, but "Disappearing Ink," the second track, is as good as any song Deerhunter has yet released, and it demands to be heard over and over. It has a hooky, driving beat, and it evokes the earliest work of another eponymous Georgia band, R.E.M..

Overall, Rainwater Cassette Exchange is an excellent listen. While the unassuming album artwork and the presence of detailed information about the songs are uncharacteristic of Deerhunter's presentation style, they offer some clues how the band creates atmosphere and 60's psychedelia (Swamp guitar! Theremins! Lap steel! Congas! Spring reverb!) The fact that it's not a very high-quality pressing and a somewhat lo-fi recording in the first place give it a gritty "underground" feel. And despite being only 5 short songs, RCE plays through with as cohesive an arc as any good album should.

If I have one complaint, it's that Kranky Records is not in the habit of offering download coupons with their vinyl releases (I paid good money for this, and I'm going to download it one way or another, so I can have it on my iPod), although Deerhunter is overall a fan-friendly band. Still, for the very reasonable price of $9.99, Rainwater Cassette Exchange is worth every penny and more. It has my recommendation.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Live:The Crying Spell, Wild Orchid Children, Some Other Bands: 3/20/10

The Crying Spell - Neumos, Seattle, WA 3/20/10
Plus Guests:
Wild Orchid Children
Dynamo Effect
Ghost Town Riot

Clap Your Hands, Y'all.

Part of gaining some critical perspective is figuring out what you don't like - That's the easy bit. The hard part to avoid becoming a complete asshole in the process. I admit, I have done wrong. When you drunkenly yell at the top of your lungs, "YOU'RE WAY BETTER THAN THE BAND BEFORE YOU," you think you're being funny until someone walks in front of you, puts his hand on your shoulder, and says, "I'm in that band."

This happened during Wild Orchid Children's set. For full disclosure, WOC is the band of a friend and co-worker, but they are quite talented.  They got the opportunity to play a Saturday night show at Neumos (who could turn that down?) but had the misfortune of sharing the bill with some other artists who might as well have been from a different, much more Emo galaxy. WOC played well, albiet to a somewhat bewildered audience, using their great chops for sort of fun psychedelia that's easy to get lost in but never boring.

I won't comment on Ghost Town Riot; I didn't catch their set. I arrived in time to see Dynamo Effect, and I was alone and only 2 songs deep when I decided I it was time to retreat to the bar and spare myself the hearing damage. Sure, D.E. Rocked - And Rocked Real Good - in a similar fashion to the hyper-masculine way Creed Rocked or Hoobastank Rocked, circa 2002.

So whatever it was Dynamo Effect was trying to do, they did it well, but that's not the point. I didn't have time to explain this when the next awkward moment arrived. It wasn't long before I found myself at neighboring urinals with the same guy. I think this is a fundamental part of the male experience. When two grown men are standing next to each other with their cocks hanging out in the open, there's no room for bullshit. I knew I owed him an apology, and he turned out to be a likable and earnest character, though understandably a little bruised. He expressed some disappointment with his own performance on the bass. I hadn't noticed. Not the issue, I tried, and failed, to articulate.

So what was the issue? There's playing well, and there's playing what you play well, and then there's originality, perspective, imagination. If there's any of these areas where D.E. falls short, it's the latter. It's not hard to spot. When I read a book, and the first two chapters completely fail to impress me, I don't feel unjustified in not bothering to finish it. This is no different. And I'm not easily impressed.

To their credit, Dynamo Effect at least had a shred of authenticity. The headliner, The Crying Spell (I could stop there) had all the same shortcomings, but to make matters worse, they seemed intent on blowing more steam out their asses than even their fog machines could manage. If a photo published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2008 is any indicator, these dudes take themselves pretty fucking seriously. A glance at their website, stage props, shiny new instruments, their high-production video of themselves rocking out in the desert (yeah, that's original) and their MySpace page show that for an "unsigned" band, they've got everything money can buy but not a lot that it can't.

Let me be clear: It's only the latter that's a problem, and it takes more than a slick hairdo and striking Christ-like poses onstage and writing songs with titles like "Beautiful" to prove otherwise. TCS have branded themselves thoroughly, but only in the same tasteless aesthetic as the music itself. When you rely on repeatedly pushing the melodrama button, you'll attract a certain audience, but I'm going to guess it'll only be the kind who like to post skanky photos of themselves on MySpace in hopes of showing up in your top friends. It's a path already well worn by The Bravery and The Killers and any number of much worse early 2000s commercial "Modern Rock" acts, the kind of radio-friendly sludge the major labels kept jamming down our collective throats, all the while blaming their declining revenues on Napster. Sure, Wild Orchid Children have an over-designed MySpace page of their own, but at least they had the good sense to smear some dirt on themselves. Clearly they're ambitious and have some resources at their disposal, but it's nice that they don't suck. As for The Crying Spell, I know there are plenty of dudes who work at Guitar Center or pseudo-Goth hairstylists who think this shit is cool. I have news for them: It's not.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Live: Richard Bishop, Seattle, WA, 3/13/10 (Magma Festival 2010, Part 1)

Richard Bishop
Fremont Arts Abbey
Seattle, WA 3/13/10

It's been a busy weekend of concert-going, and I must confess I only caught the very tail end of this one, and none of the openers. Richard Bishop is best known for being a member of Sun City Girls, a band I know very little about, but their Wikipedia page might provide an education.

This was a part of Magma Festival, an annual fund-raiser for Hollow Earth Radio, a fantastic Seattle web-only radio station. I recommend giving it a listen - Especially for anyone interested in the local, eclectic and obscure.

This was a strictly solo show, with Bishop displaying some impressive guitar prowess and sophisticated songwriting. Some of his songs evoked Tom Waits, others were instrumentals with possible middle-eastern and Flamenco influences. He displayed a well-polished variety of styles. His virtuosity alone was enough to make me think I should learn a bit about SCG.

Nothing devastatingly hip about this show, but that would be missing the point. Seeing some good music at a venue I had not yet visited, followed by grabbing a pint with a friend at a nearby pub made for a pleasant Saturday night. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Live: Thousands, Seattle, WA 3/12/10

Thousands - Healthy Times Fun Club, Seattle, WA 3/12/10
Plus Guests: W.M.W., Shana Cleveland, Fancie

Those of you who have been loyal readers may have figured out by now that brevity is not exactly my thing, but today, in the interest of time, I had better try. As you know, I'm a musician myself, so I should probably be spending more time creating and practicing music than writing about it. With that in mind, this being my first "review" of any local artists, I want to preface this by saying my intention is to document the event, not so much critique it. First off, in hoping to gain a foothold on the local scene, I think it's best I avoid stepping on anyone's toes, not that I'll pull any punches if I come across anything really disturbing. I've been thinking of focusing more of my musical attention (and hence, this blog) on the local scene anyway, as indie-label reviews are already pretty well covered by the Pitchforks of the world (Yes, I read Pitchfork, and admittedly plagiarize its style a little... Bring on the anti-hipster backlash, I'm ready for it).

Healthy Times Fun Club is a somewhat exclusive, underground venue in the first place, and I'm hesitant to bring it too much attention, should it become too popular. I consider myself lucky to know about it, and I probably wouldn't if not for being fortunate enough to know some of its proprietors. Even mentioning it in such a light, I feel I risk attracting wannabes who just want to be there because they think it makes them cool, as much as I want to see it succeed. But given how little interest mainstream Seattle shows in its DIY subculture to begin with, and how exclusive my readership is in the first place, I think it's safe for now.

But yes, the music...

Mellowness has not been my forte of late, musically speaking, but now and again, it's nice to have a reminder that edginess isn't everything. Thousands is an acoustic duo - I'm told at least one of them is also a member of Heatwarmer, a very good Seattle band I've also seen in a packed HTFC, who amusingly describe their own music as "Phish-style noodling." This was their LP release party - I didn't bring enough cash to buy all the merch I wanted, but I will try to get my hands on it at a later date. Their sound is gentle and folksy, but they display excellent chops on their acoustic guitars, playing in overlapping arpeggios and singing in pretty harmonies. Mellowness and vocal harmonies were a common theme of the night, with W.M.W. and Shana Cleveland bringing a plaintive slowcore/sadcore kind of style. Cleveland's band featured some light percussion, electric bass and a clarinet, in addition to her acoustic guitar.

Not to discount any of the above artists, but to me, the most memorable performance came from Fancie, the project of Elisabeth Wood, a prolific and musically ambitious sonwriter and multi-instrumentalist of unknown origin (Berlin? Portland? California? Utah? Florida? Her MySpace page and website offer multiple hints but no definitive home location). I did have the opportunity to chat with her after the show, and she didn't mention where she was originally from, but she did mention that she's not from Seattle, she had been living, working and performing in Germany, and (I think) that she's going back there soon. Her MySpace page also has the longest list of band members I've ever seen, only 4 or 5 of whom were present at last night's show.

The mysteriousness Fancie brings to the stage only adds an untouchable mystique to her raw talent. She has a tremendous, unwavering, sultry, colorful voice, a command of the guitar and keyboard, a rock-solid sense of her own jazzy, folksy style, and a band of highly skilled accompanists. On top of that, if the size of her discography is any indicator, she possesses a fierce work ethic. She mentioned that music is still not her sole source of income - Making her accomplishments all the more impressive, but still a reminder that the business of music is not a fair one. But then again, it may well be that the unsung heroes are the most heroic of them all.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Explorations: A Luddite In The The Man Cave


My dad seems to have something good going on. In the big room in the basement I once occupied, during a 2-year period of abject confusion following my college graduation, he's created his Man Cave. On the whiteboard I left on the door, he wrote a Mark Twain quote: "Every house should have a room you can swear in." This is that room. In addition to a very gaudy and cat-scratched couch, not to mention the huge, unfinished HO-scale train set, the most welcome addition is his vintage Hi-Fi system, centered around a Dynaco ST-70 Stereo tube amp and Dynaco PAS-2 tube preamp.Wired into this: a graphic equalizer, a DVD player relegated to playing only CDs, a very nice JVC belt-drive turntable, some very nice Polk Audio speakers, and an iPod-ready end of an RCA cable.

It's interesting discussing this stuff with my dad. In my criticism, I try to distinguish recorded music from live music as overlapping but essentially different art forms. With that in mind, I consider the equipment used to record the sound, whether it's a MacBook or 2-inch analog tape, as much an "instrument" as a guitar or piano or violin, each lending its distinct nuance to the sound. The real wild card, however, is the equipment used for playback, which varies wildly, completely independent of the recording and its medium for distribution. Ask any serious audiophile, and you'll realize there's almost no limit to how much you can spend on your stereo - from speakers costing upwards of $10,000 each right down to the RCA cables connecting your components or even the acoustic design of the listening room. 

My opinion is, after a certain point, one gets diminishing returns for every additional dollar spent on such toys. Especially in how much it might (or might not) contribute to the pleasure of the experience of listening to the music itself, which is always in danger of getting lost amid such materialistic pretensions. I've listened to some pretty nice stereos, and I'll admit, the jaw-dropping clarity of the sound was not lost on me. Then again, some of the greatest pleasure I've taken in listening to recorded music was as simple as blasting my eardrums out to My Bloody Valentine with cheap earbuds on my iPod, or enjoying a beer on my brother's front porch while Pavement drifted out the window from a $100 boombox.

All this leads me to believe that audio is a microcosm for a grander, raging debate on the role of technology in society. It's easy to forget what a new technology recorded music is in the grand scheme of things - It's been around for less than 200 years. Before the phonograph, all music was live music, stored only on sheets of paper for musicians to read, or simply in people's minds. At its advent, there was great concern for how this new "canned music" might diminish the role of live music. In the end, it turns out the two can co-exist quite well, and without that symbiosis, Rock 'n' Roll might never have existed.

Nothing really changes. During the past few decades, it would seem our love affair with technology has let most of us to believe that whatever's newer and more sophisticated is on the whole better than what preceded it - and the predominant attitude has been "out with the old, in with the new." I think there's evidence that this is not entirely true. Consider the fact that most Americans still drive cars with internal combustion engines, a 100-year-old technology only incrementally improved during its lifespan, despite the fact that far safer, cheaper and more efficient technologies have existed for decades. But then again, each one of those assertions is a value judgment, and what ultimately matters is what people want, right or wrong. As a result, it seems involvement (and not just use) of technology becomes relegated to hobbyists, gearheads and nerds. I think the overall social level of involvement could be much higher, and could bring our society wondrous new innovations.

That digression aside, the predominant technological battle over audio these days seems to be one of digital versus analog, but that's a subject for a different essay. The role of amplification, processing & speaker equipment is a far more complicated, unsexy, and generally avoided topic, but it's one that gets my dad particularly animated. His Dynaco set, he explained, is very similar to the first stereo he ever owned - in which he used Dynaco Mark IV power amps (The MKIV is a 40-watt monaural amplifier - Get 2 of them, and you've got a stereo!)

True, the Stereo 70 is a tinkerer's dream and a layman's nightmare. My dad, an engineer, takes giddy pleasure in wielding a multimeter and a soldering iron, schematic diagrams spread out on the table in front of him. It's no wonder this is his kind of toy. At home, I use a simple 90's vintage Aiwa bookshelf system, and I've never bothered unscrewing its cover to look inside. The ST-70, on the other hand, was often sold as a DIY kit for the soldering-iron-inclined. It's a separate unit from the Preamp (which houses the volume, equalization and input controls) and all its remarkably simple innards sit under a mesh cage for all the world to see. This is not a cosmetic feature - The openness of the cage is necessary to ventilate the heat of the glowing vacuum tubes. The cage does, however, have 2 holes in the top, allowing the user to adjust each channel's DC bias potentiometer using a screwdriver, lest we risk damaging any of the amp's other components (multimeter not included). That's something I'll never have to worry about on my consumer-grade Aiwa system, and it leaves me happy to concede that solid-state technologies do have their advantages. But in terms of sound quality, not to mention fun, my stereo just can't quite compete.

Then again, even though I consider myself a rabid technophile, I fear the trend toward greater sophistication in technology seems to put us on a path toward a greater alienation from it. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive - There is no high-tech giant on earth whose executives don't quake in their boots at the prospect of being put out of business by the next Steve Wozniak tinkering in his or her garage. It is true that often it serves us in a way that saves us the trouble of knowing how it works - Most car owners I know don't give a shit how a camshaft works or how many cylinders their engine has, so long as it reliably gets them where they want to go, and to be fair, they may have highly creative pursuits of their own and don't need any other distraction. I'll be the first to admit that while I have a rudimentary understanding of electronics, I don't know the first thing about selenium rectifiers or filter chokes.  Sooner or later though, we'll have to unlearn this idea that newer is necessarily better, and instead ask ourselves whether a new technology is enriching our lives. The possibility always exists that on the other hand, just distracting us, making us fat, alienating us from our communities, deskilling our jobs, destroying our environment, or any number of unforeseen consequences. Or, in this case, just ruining our fun. Don't get me wrong - it's not all bad. I love my iPod. But I think there is something to the old saying, "They don't make 'em like they used to..." - In an economic era of declining real wages, while we're getting new technology, there's the impending sense that we're getting less bang for our buck. In the way that my IKEA dining table will never find its way onto Antiques Roadshow 200 years from now. In its heyday of popularity, the Dynaco ST-70 was the "poor man's Porsche" among audiophiles, competing with far more expensive power amps with its lush, warm, responsive sound. It's one of those rare cases in which the "triumph of craftsmanship over engineering" became affordable for the everyman.

So there's my spiel on the technology. But how does music sound on this charming vintage system? Stay tuned...