This record has become important to me on a strange, deep, elemental level. I sort of purposely only know bits of the “lore” — an acid burnout found God and released a bleary-eyed, probably homemade loner folk record. Even some of that is probably wrong. Sorry.
Every time I listen to Ode (and I still, a few years on from coming across it, listen quite regularly), I feel some… stirring. As much as I truly love music, I rarely find myself sentimental for or jostled-loose by a record. Even those wrenchingly pretty things, or those fantastically large, superhero theme song type things, or those impossibly inspired and clever things — I sort of appreciate their moment, maybe even revel in them, and move on. Ode somehow nestles in some psychic void I have and gives me an unsettling shake.
There are technical reasons for this, undoubtedly. The feathery guitar playing, like the thing’s being brushed more than strummed; the bizarre, almost occult-sounding chord changes; the isolating and cavernous reverb on the vocals. It’s an incredibly stark and desolate canvas. You sort of picture a sunbaked hippie in a black cloak singing these songs alone in some caked-over desert. This is, I think, meant to be a redemptive record for Bixby, but it sure sounds more like a crack-up.
Listening to Ode has been a somewhat bafflingly stabilizing, or corrective, force in my life. Times that I’ve been sort of cruising along, bright-eyed and content, it has properly unmoored me. Like there’s some whispered subtext, “Life is beautiful, sure, but also life changes, and it can be senseless and punishing.”
Times that I’ve felt alone and listless and crumpled, Ode has been incredibly, strangely bracing and inspiring. A voice of wild-eyed power and clarity when everything seems dark and endless and inert.
There are obviously a host of intangible things that would make me react, for years, so strongly to a random private press folk record, but I don’t feel the need to dutifully untangle all of it. Mostly I’m just awed and thankful. Thankful more than anything.
This year, the poet K. Silem Mohammad has been conducting his singles countdown on Facebook (don’t seem to appear anywhere else, so you’ll have to friend the guy to read ‘em). Here’s one arbitrarily selected highlight (it was between this one and the one about Drake being good at tennis):
December Countdown of the 31 Most Terrific Songs to Peak on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2013, no. 2: Lorde, “Royals.” Part of what makes “Royals” such an impressive feat for a sixteen-year-old girl is how much it sounds like a song sung from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl, without resorting to stereotypes or cliches. Further, it manages to make that perspective compelling to listeners who are over the age of sixteen. It is not in the category of the “gurlesque”: it doesn’t ironize or recuperate cuteness, it doesn’t feed the culture’s caricatures of adolescent vapidity back to itself as somehow liberatory in their recycled state. It’s a tough, earnest lyric monologue that seems impossibly self-knowing. It’s not a question of whether the critique she levels at the cult of celebrity is unimpeachable and comprehensive; it isn’t. If it were, it wouldn’t be so true to life. None of this would be as significant if it weren’t also a perfectly crafted pop artifact, bright and melodic and grim and hard as an ice sculpture.
Usually when I make mixes, the process is pretty organic. I start playing songs in a certain tenor and wanting to hear other ones like them: genre and subject matter often fit nicely together. Homesickness and country music; drinking and the blues. Occasionally a playlist will just form itself into a coherent arc, a shifting body that nonetheless betrays a consistent feeling. But almost as frequently I find myself wandering into a weird zone of mixed, or indeterminate genre and wild oscillations between sentiments, if, indeed, there are any identifiable sentiments at all. This late springtime mixdown is one such trainwreck of heavy drum machines, frayed guitars, and bursts of electro-jazzy nonsense. But maybe you’ll find a use for it at your rained-out picnic or dwindling, twilight roof party.
If you listened to black radio or watched BET in the late ’90s (or knew anyone who did), chances are, at some point, you were exposed to the music of Nicole Wray, a protege of Missy Elliot. That was the pre-crossover, pre-Internet Timbaland era, back when songs like Wray’s “Make it Hot,” Missy’s “Hot Boyz,” and Adina Howard’s “T-Shirt & Panties” (does anyone out there remember this song, which featured Jamie Foxx?) captured the ears of mostly young adult black listeners, who traded mixtapes, tuned into local radio and public access stations for new music, and still spent their pocket money at mom-and-pop record stores. Today things are quite different: most acts on the R&B charts are widely known to anyone who follows pop music; black rom-coms, with their reliably R&B heavy soundtracks, simply don’t get made anymore; and the black radio market, which often featured diverse programming, has declined and, in some cities, like the one I live in, practically disappeared. You might say that acts like Wray (not to mention Tweet, Ginuwine, Dru Hill, K-Ci and Jojo, and countless others) were casualties of shifts that took place in the music industry at the turn of the twenty-first century—from the full-scale corporate takeover of radio to the rise of music piracy.
Which isn’t to say the music went away (the day black Americans stop making music will be the day I immigrate to Canada or western Europe; after all, if I’m going to live in a society without substantive traces of my native idiom I might as well get free health insurance). It’s just that nowadays you can’t find it at the turn of a dial. Artists who once had major-label backing are now distributing their music themselves or on independents via the Web (not exactly news, I know). Their music is harder to find, but often shows more imagination. Nicole Wray is a case in point (see Viktor Duplaix, Georgia Ann Muldrow, and Marcia Ambrosius for other examples). I doubt Elektra would have allowed her to pursue the latest project she’s been involved in with British singer Terri Walker. Together the singers have formed an R&B group called Lady. Their Motown-flavored debut album came out in March, and you can listen to the whole thing over at Okay Player. It’s definitely one of the more convincing, sophisticated, and streetwise interpretations of the Detroit sound and its spinoffs (the album’s opening cut actually brings to mind Love Unlimited’s own Motown-inspired masterpiece “I Belong to You”). It’s a taut, pitch-perfect and refreshingly jubliant concept album. The arrangements and instrumentation are pure Motown, but the vocal delivery and songwriting retain traces of late ’90s R&B. The words “minor classic” come to mind upon first listen. See for yourself.
I am slowly turning Scandinavian, one pop song at a time. The latest stage in my transformation crept up on me during a recent trip to Iceland, in which Icelandair greeted me with more than a dozen Icelandic pop CDs to listen to on the trip, followed by some choice discoveries in record stores that called Reykjavic home.
Until a few years ago, the only Icelandic musician I knew anything about was Björk Guðmundsdóttir, in all three of her manifestations: as singer for the anarcho-postpunk band K.U.K.L., then with the pop-disco Sugarcubes, and finally, not so simply, as Björk. She remains the lodestar of Icelandic pop: her CDs dominate the local record stores, she writes blurbs on best-selling books, and most bands can’t help but being influenced by one of the many genres she’s explored in her long career. Three years ago I added to my list of Icelandic bands the indie popsters FM Belfast, who are set to release their third CD later this year, and they remain one of my favorite pop (not just Icelandic) bands to this day. I should also have known about Of Monsters and Men, whose debut CD “My Head is an Animal” is well-enough known stateside, but better late than never…
After hitting themselves over the head with a titanic financial disaster five years ago, it’s perhaps not surprising that Icelanders are scurrying to music for some solace: they’re certainly no longer busy making unhealthy amounts of money, and—to judge from a cool book I picked up called Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation, by Andri Snaer Magnason (forward by Björk, of course), at least some of them are interested in reflecting on what went wrong. Not that much of the music being produced is of a political bent: all the clubs in Reykjavik showcase DJ This and DJ That, and the bands range relatively narrowly between dance and folk-pop. But they do seem to have some time on their hands, and they’re using it to create a surprising amount of great music—especially considering that the population of Iceland is roughly the same as Lincoln, Nebraska or Kalamazoo, Michigan (well… the “metropolitan areas”), and that Reykjavik feels like a very small national capital. Granted, Kalamazoo doesn’t quite possess Iceland’s tax base, even post-2009—and certainly doesn’t own an airline that provides all its passengers with free home-grown music.
The first record I sampled on the Icelandair flight was “Rokk í Reykjavík,” which I later found out accompanied a TV documentary on Icelandic rock, ca 1981. It included songs by two bands I had long since forgotten about: Purrkur Pillnikk (which means “Sleepy Chess-Player”), and Q4U. Purrkur Pillnikk‘s brilliant 2-minute “Surprise” (from their only English-language EP, “No Time to Think”) was once one of my favorite songs, and after hearing the Icelandic version of that song on “Rokk í Reykjavík” (called “Ovaent”) I was pleased to find a compilation of their final three records (it’s also on itunes), and tracked down much of their first LP later on youtube. They were something like a Scandinavian version of The Minutemen, if you can imagine that: smart lyrics (those I could understand), herky-jerky rhythms, and well-timed shouts. Q4U (pictured above) predated K.U.K.L. by a couple of years, and were a much more listenable version of what K.U.K.L. tried to do: sassy, edgy feminist pop akin to Essential Logic or Kleenex. Their debut LP, “Q1”, has been reissued with extra trimmings and is easy to find online.
Back to the present: pop bands in Iceland, like in many other small countries, can be divided between those who sing in English vs. in their native language. The best in the first camp are FM Belfast and Of Monsters of Men, both of whom seem to have an underwear fixation: one of my favorite songs by FM Belfast is “Underwear,” which complains of nothing to do in Iceland (leading to the obviously painful denouement: see the video). And the debut CD by Of Monsters and Men—or rather the Icelandic version—features a lineup of fit Icelandic men from perhaps seventy years ago, garbed either in underwear or antique swimming trunks (the US release shows a boy running on a beach — but it does include an extra song). BVDs aside, both bands feature a similar unbeatable formula: lilting girl-boy melodies that dive about like puffins catching their daily meal, interesting instrumentation, and memorable lyrics. FM Belfast are more electronic, especially on their new song “We Are Faster Than You” (so far only available on a very good compilation called “This is Icelandic Indie Music,” which you can order here). Of Monsters and Men are more “folk,” in the way Mumford and Sons are folk: trumpets blare now and then, singing sometimes gives way to whistling, and orchestration occasionally happens. Less consistently good, but occasionally sparkling, in the English-language camp, are Tilbury (start with “Tenderloin” on their 2012 CD “Exorcise”) and Seabear, who add some fiddle to their folk-pop mix.
Harder to find, but worth seeking out, are artists like Ensimi and Ásgeir Trusti, who mainly sing in Icelandic (so I can’t vouch for their lyrics). Ensimi has been around for fifteen years at least, and they’ve evolved from loud shoe-gazey melodies on “Kafbátamúsík” (1998) to quieter mirrors of sound on 2010’s “Gaeludyr.” Ásgeir Trusti, branded as “new artist of the year” in all the Reykjavik record shops, soothes savage breasts and then some on his brilliant debut CD, “Dýrð í Dauðaþögn.” Attentive readers of this blog may recall the praise I heaped on the Danish band The Rumour Said Fire: all such encomiums apply to Ásgeir Trusti, who hums his lyrics in a softly-swooping tenor voice over surprisingly intricate guitar work and the occasional horn or piano part. Here’s a taste from Youtube, which actually includes a hum or two, and while you’re listening to it please try not to blame the Danes too much for their centuries of oppressing Iceland. You should be able to order it (the CD, not Danish oppression) here.
It’s not as if there are deep reserves of talent swelling up beneath the handful of bands discussed herein, although I haven’t quite exhausted the list of Iceland music that caught my ear. Then again (with no offense intended toward those two cities), how many great bands can you name from Lincoln or Kalamazoo?
Kleenex Girl Wonder, “Room At Deserted Ranch” (1999)
Fogged up in my room with the flu, tenth grade, working down through a spindle of CDRs that a friend gave me, one of them had this deep among its twenty-five grab bag four-trackers. I lay there feeling gauzed over and very much under the ceiling and perhaps myself rather a Kleenex Girl Wonder, with my rosy nostrils and this whole pile of indie-achy music-my-friend-likes. “Room At Deserted Ranch” emerges through the nasal passages of one Graham Smith, in the title of one song The Strongest Man Alive, and I might believe the claim this tinny-toned, tinselly lyricist, playing all the instruments at the same time as I lay there, NyQuilling myself at midday, disc after Sharpie’d disc down the Telecaster underpass of an over-easy brain.
I’m not so naive to think that people actually SHOULD be talking more about the Tricky record that just came out than the Kanye record that just came out, but it’s somewhat mystifying that I’ve not heard anyone talk about the Tricky record, especially given the fact that Yeezus sounds so much like a Tricky record. Not that Yeezus sounds like any particular Tricky record, but it sounds, musically, like a record Tricky could have made, maybe ten years ago, or maybe last year, had things gone a little differently for him.
For whatever reason — and my guess is it’s just that for such an “event” album, people always need to contextualize and look back — Yeezus sparked a lot of thought about Kanye’s career as a whole. He’s managed to create a body of work that invites debate, welcomes different opinions, and changes shape with each new addition. Tricky has had the opposite type of career, which is of course much more common — you make one record that people jump on, they build expectations for what you’ll do next, and you fail to either confound them enough, quickly enough, or build on what you’ve done before with enough growth or variation to satisfy them. Maxinquaye ends up standing as an all time classic, while the narrative, which I’ve never heard seriously debated, posits that all the rest of his records are at best lesser versions of his “early stuff” and at worst misguided diversions into ill suited genre experiments or aimless poorly conceived wanderings in the wilderness.
Only so many hours in the day, but I think anyone who, like Tricky, has managed to maintain a career for as long as he has (Blue Lines came out in ‘92 so we’re talking about two decades) deserves a little more thought than this. Maxinquaye was great, but it’s not like there were any hits on it, and it’s certainly not like anything he’s done since has performed any better, so how is he still around? Well, maybe it’s because, with some exceptions, he’s still been making good music — music that appeals to varying degrees to people who liked Maxinquaye — but without having made the jump to being a true celebrity. Part of the Tricky narrative, both for Tricky in particular and others like him, is that fame didn’t suit him, he couldn’t hack it on a certain level. His music remains music, and does not become a true pop culture object.
Basically, what I’m getting at in a backwards way, and this needs more exposition and more thought, is that if Yeezus wasn’t a Kanye record, who would care? The only reason that False Idols isn’t a big deal is that the dude who made it hasn’t been a marquee name since the last millenium, and the only reason Yeezus is is that the guy who made it has been crowned by himself and the press as the “main guy to pay attention to”. I’m not complaining — I’m as fascinated ad entertained by Kanye as anyone, and I think he’s talented and deserves to be spoken about, but within the realm of music qua music, Yeezus doesn’t deserve the shouts or the hushed tones it’s been getting. It’s another album within an impressive, long, and hopefully still young career, rather than something to be quickly mythologized, something that instantly becomes a piece of music that everyone needs to know about and have opinions on.
This Tricky-Yeezy relationship sheds light, for me, on how much music criticism, or the way people talk about music in public, has so much to do with the cultural, nonmusical cloud of things surrounding music, and makes me wonder who out there is really, or who has really, ever, simply approached music on its own terms. Yeezus is a glaring example of a record that few people would care about but for the cultural significance factor, the celebrity factor, the “what does this tell us about ourselves” factor, but so much of what’s said has also been along the lines of, “yeah, but the music.” This makes all the conversation very confusing — are we really talking about this as music? Is the music important, or is the music just signifying things that are important in the context of the album as a larger cultural artifact? Is it important that this sounds like industrial music at times, that he’s using odd nonquantized jump cuts, that there’s a lot of Jamaican shit going on because that’s important on a musical level, or are these things important because it means that Kanye is now into industrial music, non-pro editing techniques, and reggae? Is Yeezus actually something to be appreciated as an original piece of music, or is it just a collection of influences stitched together to give the public a view of where Kanye’s head is at right now? Is this really a record, or is it a mixtape?
I’m going down the rabbit hole here, and I realize I’m approaching the question of whether a celebrity can really create music that can be appreciated as such, and that’s dangerous territory. One thing we can all agree on is the Kanye is really really ridiculously good at being famous, and that Tricky is not. People talk about how some musicians handle the limelight, thrive under the limelight, overcome the sophomore hex, rise to the occasion, et cetera, and what part of that means, I think, is that they can move from a position where they are treated as artists, to a position where they are treated as celebrities, and as such, treated as “mirrors of our culture” or some shit. If celebrities really can’t make music qua music, but can only make records that function (or don’t function) as elements of a multi-media cultural production for which personality is the central axis, then what we’re talking about by artist progression is really the ability of a musician to adjust to a situation where with each record they’re not just making music, they’re making some Frankenstein of cultural criticism, memoir, and celebrity endorsement. Kanye has managed this transition better than almost anyone, which is why it’s so much fun to talk about him, so easy to project onto and extract from him all the little talking points about American life that we (and I mean people who at least sometimes talk about music in a public way) like to talk about — maybe this is what Kanye means when he says “I am a god,” or maybe he means that he thinks he’s actually a god. I’m not gonna get into all that.
De La Soul, “Oooh.” Video directed by Jeff Richter, 2000.
Hard to imagine what it was that I knew or didn’t know thirteen years ago, what I was conscious of when I first saw the video for “Oooh” — I certainly didn’t register Dave Chapelle, I did not know that Brick City was a reference to a real place, and, shit, I’d never listened to 3 Feet High and Rising – but despite that, its obvious that something about this strange and largely forgotten piece of music video history made a big impression on me.
Having skitched my adolescent years to the emergence of Bad Boy and its visual trappings, this video ridiculous video probably seemed nothing out of the ordinary to me at the time of its release. The elaborate costumes, intro set piece, jarring stops and starts to admit “plot” elements, the contrived movie tie ins – it strikes me now basically as Busta’s “Dangerous” with Lethal Weapon replaced with The Wiz — all probably seemed somewhat commonplace to my addled mind. What’s fucked up is that the dated, ostentatious visual style was used to support such laid back, assured and deft rhyming. While I would not have been able to put it like this at the time, I was used to rappers trading 16s — I was raised on the Beasties. Hearing Posdnous and Dove switch off at odd times, sort of finishing thoughts, seeming to pass off rhymes and trade quips conversationally, it all seemed so simple, so casual – a feeling bolstered by the fact that they’re talking about oatmeal cookies and Star Wars (two separate references). Which is all to say it should have been mindblowing, but it wasn’t.
A bunch of that probably had to do with the video. Not that I’m an expert, but my impression is that after setting up an incredibly distinctive persona on “3 Feet High”, De La suffered from the affects of simultaneously playing into a burgeoning big money rap game and sticking to their guns by getting deeper, more intellectual. I won’t suggest that De La made any mistakes in this regard – the fact that I both saw this video when it came out, and that I’m still thinking about it today, is testament to the fact that they were doing something right on both fronts, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that by playing into the video fads of the day (which were starting to look a little dated even by this point) they weren’t doing their music any favors. Case in point – in some weird turn of the Willenium rap math trick the five and half minute video is overblown enough to necessitate cutting out a bunch of stanzas from the originally three and half minute song, including this one, which speaks quite eloquently to the cognitive dissonance going on here:
‘Twas the night before Christmas and my crib got robbed
They did a job
Took all my goodies out from under the tree, except the CDs
Of shiny-suit rappers and flossin emcees
Who fail at takin it to rhyme degrees
In the end, I wish De La Soul had been a bigger part of my life at the time. They were licking headshots even during this period, and between this song and Dave Holmes choosing 3 Feet High as one of three CDs representing his musical taste during the “Wanna Be a VJ” competition (a fact that is unconfirmed by basic Google searching, but that I remember as clear as a Sprite when you pour it out the bottle, which makes it look green, but it’s not, it’s clear), something should have stuck. I guess they didn’t carry them in the Columbia House catalog, or things coulda been different.
This is a most highly refined margarine of heartbreak. When you’re stocking yourself with the china, spritzed by the twinkle on your spurs, it’s the sort of stuff that stands up in delicious, slick black streaks. You’re burning a grilled cheese.
There are vocal affectations, and then there are voices—voices that transcend personal expression and become a signpost or something resembling a formal genre convention. What starts as just the way some guy or girl sings eventually becomes a signifier of time, place, and politics. We have the alt rock voice (Cobain/Vedder through Stapp/Nickleback) the metal voice (obviously there’s lots of kinds of metal voices, but for all intents and purposes we’re talking about incoherent growling here, which I’ll trace back, not without serious factual error, here, to Slayer) and increasingly, we have the not-a-pop-star white girl voice.
Shania Twain was a big deal because she made country music that was palatable to people who didn’t like country music, and a lot of that had to do with her voice. She sang with enough twang to be country, enough country to never be fully pop, but enough city rigidity to appeal to the whatever part of the listening public it is that doesn’t like country music but liked Shania Twain (I see that my thesis has a hole here —who are these people, and what is it about country music that they don’t like? Questions for another time.) She was also—and this is important—Canadian.
It is my belief that the country vocal style comes naturally to the Canadian voice. Part of Shania’s deal, I’d argue, came from the fact that she wasn’t a country girl singing country, she was a First Nations Canadian singing pop, which just came out sounding like country.
We now live in a world where I hear slivers of country in the vocals of most of pop’s leading female singers who sing primarily in front of traditional rock instrumentation. Taylor Swift is the obvious queen of this phenomenon, but while she goes out and embraces electronic Skrillex music, while maintaining at least some of the country in her voice, we have Avril and Hayley going the opposite way, and meeting somewhere in the middle.
In 2013 are nearing the culmination of a process begun back in 1993 when, meeting Mutt Lange for the first time, Shania Twain unknowingly set in motion a series of events that would merge Canadian identity, pop punk, ties worn over t-shirts, country music, Mayer-shaming, and youthful exuberance into a single sound. In Avril Lavigne, Hayley Williams and Taylor Swift we have the holy trinity, the unholy triplet brood of Shania, and they’ve come to remake the world of popular music in her image, surreptitiously, covertly, from the inside. When their destinies are fulfilled, we will all be listening to country music and not even know it. We will hear distorted electric guitars, see an alt rock station on the dial, and bob our heads not realizing how at odds our love for Incubus is with the COUNTRY music that we’re listening to. It will be everywhere and it will not wear cowboy hats or fringe.
Though this time is still a ways off, it is closer than you may think. Listen to Paramore and Avril’s new singles closely, compare them with Red, think on it. Something is afoot, something even I can’t quite put my finger on. All I know for sure is that when I listen to Taylor, Avril and Hayley, I picture the same middle school hallway, and not just any middle school hallway: a middle school hallway in some unimportant backwater burg nobody every cared much about: a middle school hallway in a one stoplight town that most folks breezed through without noticing they’d ever been there, somewhere out on the plains of northern Alberta where the wind was cold in Winter, but bred real Canadians, with real Canadian voices: a middle school hallway where young girls fall in love, dye their hair, and grow up grasping acoustic guitars, wishing for something bigger, something more exciting, more dangerous. I call the middle school that contains this hallway “Shania Twain Middle School” for reasons that should be pretty obvious if you’ve been paying any attention.