So everyone in the indie rock demimonde has collectively lost their shit over Courtney Barnett…
…but when I listen to her all I can think of is how much she sounds like Mark E. Smith of the Fall.
You know this one.
“Sloop John B.” was the first song for which I learned fingerpicking, thanks to a tab in the back of Ukulele magazine. When Gentleman Caller and I caught Love and Mercy this weekend, the scene where the Beach Boys shoot a proto-video for this song prompted me to look it up on YouTube.
As a side note, I find these short films 1960s bands shot really charming. Is it the primitive technology? The nostalgic pull of the music? The personalities of the band members, which seem more real than those of contemporary pop stars? Something entirely different? Who knows. In spite of where Brian was at in his life, watching the Beach Boys cavort and do pratfalls makes me chuckle.
Apparently I chose the right time to fall under the spell of the Dirty Projectors. While Dave Longstreth’s band has yet to announce another album, former vocalist Angel Deradoorian is getting ready to release a new album. Her new single, “A Beautiful Woman”, has a sinuous groove and a cinematic mood, and the busy production is giving me Brian Eno flashbacks. Listen to it on Soundcloud.
“curious what people shitting on sonic youth listen to as a proper alternative” — flufluflu, 2012
Glad you asked.
About a year before Daydream Nation dropped, Sonic Youth’s labelmates Game Theory released Lolita Nation on Enigma Records. To many, the album was the band’s defining moment; to me, it’s the best double album with the word “nation” in the title that Enigma released (and I’ll stand on Thurston Moore’s coffee table in my high-button boots and say so). Where SY’s raison-d’etre was dissonance, Game Theory mastermind Scott Miller reveled in perfect pop melodies, ringing chords, and literate lyrics…but he also had a knack for subverting the pop form with out-of-left-field arrangements, spots of harmonic dissonance, and seemingly non sequitur samples. The way beauty and melody coexisted in Miller’s songs with intentionally ugly sounds and musical tension showed me that you can use avant-garde techniques alongside traditional structures, and that both can be valid in the same song. Though Miller died in 2013, Omnivore Records is remastering and reissuing the long-out-of-print Game Theory albums for a new generation to discover. If you love Big Star, Ted Leo, Aimee Mann, and the New Pornographers, or you like your pop music with a side of weirdness, you owe it to yourself to check out these reissues. Those wanting a taste of Lolita Nation without dropping a few hundred dollars can check out the video above.
While Throwing Muses don’t have a formal connection to SY, their music also came to me at a time when I should have been delving into the NYC hipsters. While they also traded in a form of dissonance, the dense arrangements and rhythmic anchor made them sound less messy (and the airy guitar lines read less as harsh and more as pretty to my young ears). Kristin Hersh’s fractured narratives about outcasts and marginal characters, rife with surreal imagery, fully clicked for me when I heard Rykodisc’s reissue of the first Throwing Muses album, known stateside as “the green album”. While “Fish” and “Counting Backwards” were radio hits in the pre-Nirvana ’90s, I’ve chosen one of their more notorious songs…a heartbreaking narrative about a shooting at a McDonalds in the mid-80s. I love the way Kristin’s voice works against the bass groove at the beginning of the song, giving it a lyrical and musical tension. The Muses released some great records over the years, but for my money the first album is a perfect, perfect record.
Like pretty much every other white girl of a certain age, I braved the sleet and snow last Tuesday to get a copy of Girl in a Band, the incisive and heartbreaking memoir by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth renown. I gobbled it down in less than 24 hours, and my opinion of it was consistent with others’: her vitriol towards Courtney Love and Lana Del Rey, while understandable, was a bit much, but reading about her artistic process, her attempts at balancing work and life, and negotiating her artistic integrity kept me reading to the last pages. Though one might read her insights on her marriage and feminine identity in music as hashtag-mainstream feminist, she spoke only for herself, and the way she wrote about being a “strong woman” in music and the intersection of art and craft kept me company. After I finished the book, I felt inspired and invigorated.
My love of the book came as a surprise, since I was never a huge fan of Sonic Youth. My need for beauty and melody and redemption clashed with their loud guitar sounds and apocalyptic lyrics, and I found their name-dropping, trend-hopping antics showy and irritating. When I was growing up, I was drawn to surrealism and avant-garde techniques, but Sonic Youth’s omnipresence made me think that theirs was the only way to be an underground artist. Reading Girl in a Band inspired me to reappraise their music, and I’ve been listening to Goo while I’m at work. (Turbulent music can come in handy in a loud office.)
The Carpenters were pretty far out of vogue when I first heard Sonic Youth, and their adulation of a corny, square pop duo inspired much eye-rolling in me. At the time I was unaware of Karen’s fight with bulimia or her painful family life (or her drumming!). I’d assumed SY had adopted the Carpenters in an ironic stance that was all too trendy in their early 90s heyday. In the years since I’ve learned more about Karen’s sad background and come to respect her place in the firmament. The open letter Kim wrote to Karen broke my heart with its empathy and gave me some context for “Tunic”. The song sounds so melancholy and eerie, and the handmade, public access kids’ pageant aesthetic of the video just hits my sweet spot.
So listening to “Kool Thing” while reading through a work assignment on intersectionality was poignant and galvanizing. This was the first song I ever heard by SY…I was twelve or thirteen and I HATED it. Hated the loud guitars and the singsongy vocals and (what I then regarded as) the shallow lyrics. I like how she and Chuck D are standing next to one another, frustrated with “white corporate America”. They’ve got a point there.
I can’t say I’ll ever be a fan of SY. I think Game Theory’s work does a more interesting job of bringing unusual techniques to pure pop, and Throwing Muses did a lot more with dissonance and surprise. But listening to their albums at this remove helps me appreciate how important they were, and I’m glad I got to that point.
I last saw Mike Horne on a balmy Sunday afternoon. I was returning from SoWa, knitting, and minding my own business, when a meaty finger came between me and my work in progress. A voice gnarled with sarcasm intoned over-the-top Communist homilies, and I looked up to see Mike’s asymmetrical smirk. We compared notes on our doings; I was particularly excited about my new position at the Lab. “You’re lucky,” he observed. “Not everyone has a job they like.”
If anyone knew that, it would be Mike. For a few months we toiled together in a call center job. This was my first office position, and since I had gotten fired from my previous job I took this one very seriously. Mike, on the other hand, recognized that this was a dead-end job. While I almost developed an ulcer from not making my quotas, Mike would make horrible jokes while I was on calls and tie purloined balloons to the Hello Kitty backpack I carried as my purse. After work one day, he and our friend Jonathan took me to the Public Gardens to surrepetitiously smoke pot from a ceramic “cigarette”. His sense of humor and healthy perspective helped me stay sane for the time that I toiled in that cellar.
Eventually I burned out and left the job for the wonderful world of temping. Though I didn’t see Mike as frequently, he still reached out to me to hang out with him and his buddies — go over to his house for a barbecue, perhaps, or catch a Bruce Lee double-header at the Brattle. Mike’s generosity of spirit came through not only in his occasional gifts (like the free Spirited Away passes he helped me score), but also in his deep and arcane knowledge, and in his knowledgeable and skilled friend base. Even though I didn’t agree with some of his positions, I valued his point of view and his ability to not see everything as the end of the world.
I ran into him less over the past few years, but whenever I crossed paths with him he seemed content. He worked as a manager at The Compleat Strategist, he’d married his sweetheart, Carol, and he was still plugging away at things that interested him. Seeing him on the T or popping my head into his store was always an adventure, and when I think of him I can’t help but smile and laugh.
Sadly, that afternoon at the tail end of summer would be the last time I’d see him. While I was in DC for a conference, I learned that Mike had passed.
While Mike and I weren’t BFFs, I can’t think of certain things and NOT be reminded of Mike. He introduced me to El Santo and to Ganja & Hess, and I told him about how important punk rock and Nancy Drew were to me. I’m glad I knew him, and the world is a little smaller for his loss.
If you have a few quarters rolling around in your pocket, my pal Mara has created a fund for Mike’s widow, Carol. My thoughts are with her right now, and with the many people Mike knew.
So long, man.
A very happy 2014 to you!
Prior to my inadvertent blogging blackout, I started to learn ukulele. Along with my knitting, learning the uke has kept me sane over the past few weeks. I’ve been thinking about recording an EP of cover songs by a band I’ve loved for over half my life, and I’ve sought out inspiration from likeminded covers artists.
A while ago, my friend Geoff tipped me off to Jeffrey Lewis‘s 12 Crass Songs album, which strips down the hardcore punk of Crass and makes the revolutionary messages of its songs more accessible to a contemporary audience. I love the subversive contrast between Lewis’s upspeaking voice and the tinkling arrangements, and the political lyrics.
I’m pretty sure I read about Janice Whaley‘s Smiths Project in the long-gone VenusZine, but for those of you who haven’t heard of it: Janice recorded the entire Smiths discography using only her voice. The acapella arrangements — comparable to Bjork’s Medulla — give me chills. This found-footage video for “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” will give you a taste for the rest of the project.
Finally, if you’re wondering what kind of lunatic would teach me how to play the ukulele, behold: my ukulele teacher Amy Kucharik.
(Can’t say her aside on the description doesn’t hit home with me, tee hee.) If you’re a potential player in search of a teacher who will kick your ass and make you love the instrument, I can strongly suggest Amy.