Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Voxtrot - s/t

I really know nothing of any of the current buzz bands, beyond a word or two I see in a messageboard or what I'm visually assualted by when I glance at the front page of pitchforkmedia. Desperate for finding new things to get needlessly mad about, here's what I saw when I looked at it today (besides a lovely story about Neko Case selling lingere on ebay):

Say hello to Voxtrot. They look like they're trying so hard to be uncool. I'm pretty sure my dad has that exact shirt the guy in the middle is wearing (including the little alligator). That yellow and blue striped shirt is also a strong contender for the Most Tastleless Article of Clothing Ever Worn in a Publicity Shot award.

I heard about them from someone at the Oberlin radio station when I was still there and figured that with the name, they must be some sort of irritating twee/dance group. I even downloaded their new self-titled album with the intention of reviewing it here a couple months back, but their music unfortunately didn't live up to my expectations of awful. No, Voxtrot is an exceptionally straightforward and sincere band. I originally thought that was odd, maybe even refreshing, considering what's usually popular in the indie world these days. Then I remembered that it was only a matter of time before dopey, straight-laced sincerity became the new irony.

But it's unfair to get bitter about the state of the "indie" world and not judge these guys on the merit of their actual music, which is suprisingly decent. It's also nothing you wouldn't expect - the whirring, layered mechanical guitars that are present in anything remotely resembling the Strokes these days make appearences, but they're offset by more heartfelt strings and piano. The arrangements themselves are fairly predictable, but nothing too simple or redundant. There's enough variety to keep things from getting too dull, from the intense "Kid Gloves" to the laid-back "Future Pt. 1" to the jumpy, piano-driven "Stephen" to the serious ballad "Real Life Version".

Unfortunately the singer's utter sincerity in everything from his lyrics straight from the mouth of a freshly disillusioned highschooler to his clearly enunciated voice is so sentimental it borders on sappy. I prefer a simple vocal delivery vastly to weird affectations put on purposefully to the voice as a way of sounding more unique, but virtually everything about Voxtrot is as clean-cut and run-of-the-mill as you can get. And that's what I find more than a little bit disturbing. There are some pleasent hooks scattered about, but nothing particularly memorable or compelling. It's just too easy. It's almost as if their popularity is a way for teenage hipster-hopefuls to listen to something they secretly enjoy a lot more than the more difficult and challenging music they're pretending to like without losing cred.

When bands like this get embraced by the "indie" world, I start to doubt my own musical sensibilities. Maybe I'm just not hearing something brilliant that's there? Maybe my ability to recognize brilliance is way off?

But if my taste-meter isn't as fucked up as it seems to be, my question is this: How could people with knowledge of infinitely more innovative and fully-realized bands love stuff like this? Do they just like everything new that comes down the pipe that doesn't suck? It confuses the hell out of me. In the end, I don't hate this album and I don't hold it against people for liking this band's music, but there certainly isn't much on here I could give a damn about either way.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Panda Bear - Person Pitch

I didn't hear this until just recently. I was skeptical, but after seeing it praised on a couple messageboards I visit and its very high rating on Pitchfork (yes, I still go to that place occasionally), I decided to give it a chance.

I've listened to it a couple times now and my impression is that it's a very agreeable, fun record. The whole thing is filled with bizarro world, gregorian chant-like takes on 60's nostalgia. "Bros" is the definite highlight, with its incredibly simple but infectious melody that takes its time to develop and twist its way into your skull. There are some weaker, more indulgent tracks like "Search for Delicious" that meander without really going anywhere in particular. Still, the sound of the whole album is very unique but it also immediately evokes fond memories in anyone who's ever heard a Beach Boys record (which is pretty much everyone).

There's no question that Person Pitch is infectious. My concern is that there's not an overwhelming amount of depth to it. The Pitchfork review mentions that it draws its repetition and sense of dynamics heavily from dance music. It also mentions a bunch of "microhouse" artists as a big influence, whatever the hell microhouse is. And no, I don't care.

I risk being closed-minded here, but I've never really understood dance music. There's absolutely nothing wrong with making music fun or danceable, sure, but I don't see the point of making music that's only intent is to be danced to. I don't really get where the artistry or skill comes in there. It's formulaic and it seems to emphasize being technically sound over being an actual musician.

So when this pretty minimal, predictable approach is applied to something like Beach Boys' melodies that were infinitely more complex in their original form, it irks me. It seems that a lot of popular music today has had an increasing amount of fixation on nostalgia, specifically 60's stuff. That's fine, but it tends to either just rehash what its emulating completely but miss the essential spark of the original or take some part of the sound to simplify and deconstruct.

And I think that's missing a lot of what made stuff like the Beach Boys good in the first place. Of course when Brian Wilson produced Pet Sounds, he wanted a great sounding record. But he also wanted to make something that sounded both very complex and completely innocent and unforced. He wanted something that could be memorable and grab people's attention right at the start but still hold up after many listens.

I'm not saying that Person Pitch should be compared to Pet Sounds, just that a lot of what makes Pet Sounds a great record is that Brian Wilson was willing to encompass many different ideas that maybe seemed a little contradictory at first in order to find his ideal sound. Person Pitch, like a lot of stuff today, has one aesthetic (albeit a good one), and just takes it to its logical conclusion. That sound is put in the forefront and made much important than the music contained within. It's fun while it lasts, but there's no contradiction - there's nothing to dig into. It's some pleasant bits of noise and then it's over.

And maybe that's ok. But in my mind, it's what separates great music from just good music. I want to see more musicians not be content to stick with just one idea or asethetic, and be good artists who challenge themselves to come up with something original and timeless. I really don't believe that, despite its 9.4 review at Pitchfork, many people are going to be talking about Person Pitch in five years.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The World According to Nouns

Awhile back I was reading a very long interview with ex-Minuteman Mike Watt where he goes into detail about the meaning of each song on Double Nickels on the Dime. The lyrics on that album have meant a lot to me, but I could never figure out quite what they were getting at as a whole. What he mentions about the song I lifted the name of this site from I found particularly interesting:
The world according to nouns - are there any thoughts left in the head that don't have a word assigned to it?...Some people think it's kinda corny and cheesy, having to talk about it in the first place with the language and that shit....You should be aware of this, especially when you're a young person. To find out where a wall is, you push. You've heard so many people talk about where it is. You're like "I wonder if it really is there."
Nouns are particularly important because they can be so vague. While adjectives describe things, nouns define them. Even something as concrete as a chair can bring to mind different images of different types of chairs. And (to borrow from the song) what about something more abstract like the state? Americans have a general sense of what the state is, but how do people from a different part of the world view it? And it's comforting to think about it as a fact of life, but that ignores everything that went into creating the idea of a state and instilling it in people's heads in the first place. And even when that idea had been created, where did the current incarnation come from? How has it become what it is today?

What about with music? Let's say I'm a record store clerk who has the Double Nickels on the Dime lp in his hands, and I put it in the punk section. But what does punk mean? Certainly people have expectations of a specific sound from the mention of the word, but where did those expectations come from? How has the perception of this genre of music changed over time?

The Minutemen embraced the word because of it represented a DIY way of life and expression. Yet they sounded very far from what most today consider to be punk (stuff along the lines of The Ramones/The Sex Pistols). Which brings the question, can punk have different meanings? (as they say in Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Truth?, "can a word have two meanings?") Has punk gone from a way of life to a crass commercial term? Does it make it more likely for their message and the value of their music to be misunderstood by people who have more narrow conceptions of what the word means?

You get the idea. The point of asking these questions is not to just talk about how we should understand language. That's pretty boring for me to write, especially because I don't know that much about it. The point is that looking at things from this kind of perspective - where there are no walls or barriers and nothing is certain and everything should be questioned, is absolutely fucking essential. If only because so many people give it no thought and take it for granted. They think the wall is there, but is it really there? You have to think about the heavy, confusing shit to develop a more clear understanding of how the world works. But to do that, you actually have to care.

And getting people to care seems to be the largest obstacle. It is hard to get a handle on all of this shit (I can hear D. Boon yelling "I'm fuckin' overwhelmed!"). Many people will try to be open-minded and look outside their world but I don't think they really see where other perspectives intersect with their own. It's more that they feel a need to be accepting of others' differences to be a better person but still believe that those people are fundamentally different.

It's like this post-modern view that we are defined by our differences. We are supposed to accept these differences as what makes everyone special and unique. I don't buy into that PC shit at all. It's what's the same about everyone that makes us special. The true strength of humans is the endless powers of ingenuity and creativity and our capacity for love, truth, and understanding. It sounds corny, but it's absolutely true. And I don't care about nor have time for anything else.

I had a lot of doubt when I first considered doing this blog. I thought if I even could somehow get people to read and understand what I'm saying, they would find it annoying and monotonous and say stuff like "why does this matter?" After all, hasn't this been the kind of thing that's been rammed down everyone's throats by every Emerson/Thoreau wannabe? Didn't all of that shit come out in the 60's until it was overtaken by the market? Doesn't it just sound now like the played out recruiting language for some mindless cult? Isn't the world we live in now fundamentally more complex and different? Don't irony and cynicism speak more to our generation?

Maybe this is hard for some people to believe, but we still live in the same world that people occupied 10000 years ago. People still eat, sleep, shit, learn, talk, and have sex. The only difference is that the capacity for learning and understanding has greatly increased. I have never been able to understand why, with the limitless resources the internet has, there are so few people online taking advantage of it. For the first time in...forever, people have actual freedom of speech and the ability to be heard from anywhere, yet very few seem to know what to do with it at all. Why not test it? Why not take a risk so you can learn something new about the world?

We're so used to having a ridiculous number of options that it's easy to concentrate on satisfying the short term and never look past that. So maybe people just don't feel an impulse to express themselves as long as they can have all they think they need. Or maybe some people figure there's no point in expressing themselves because they think they can never do it as well as someone else. Maybe they're afraid of being proven wrong or inferior. Maybe they just don't want to completely pour their hearts out only for no one to see it or care. Maybe they're just so tired of putting up with the bullshit that they've given up and become jaded and bitter. All of these are understandable, but none of them should stop anyone from confronting this and soldiering on.

"The world according to nouns" is the world most people occupy. It's pop culture, it's buzzwords, it's advertising, it's the "blogosphere". It's the only thing most people give a fuck about. People talk about it because it's a world so familiar to everyone and it's so easy to get caught up in all of it. It becomes people's lives and deludes people into thinking they know what they want out of life. It's stuff that can sometimes be important but is more often a barrier to larger, universal truths.

It's probably important to say right now that I am not being original here. I'm not going to congratulate myself for rehashing ideas that more educated and intelligent people have defined in very eloquent terms over the years. This has been repeated many times by everyone from Jesus to Emerson to Ghandi, but it bears repeating until everyone on earth understands exactly what it means. It is not hippie bullshit, it's a completely sincere and rational acknowledgment of the reality of the world. So if I had to sum up the purpose of this "blog" and any subsequent form of expression I'll ever do, it is the following:

We are all connected. Everything is connected. It's ok be smart. It's ok to be sincere and actually care about things. Irony is a tool, not a way of life. It's ok to like anything. Categories and labels should only ever be used to describe something, not define it. Don't let yourself be swept up in the culture's obsession with identity. Instead, do everything you can to discover yourself. Then make it a point to be yourself regardless of what anyone else thinks about it. Do what you believe you should do and be passionate about it, but also use your head and be rational. Realize that our society's definition of success is only temporary and doesn't make you a better human being. Don't wallow in guilt or shame. Instead, take advantage of your privileges by being a decent human being and finding a way to help others express themselves. This shit has always been relevant and it will always be relevant.


I'm done talking about that for right now. I mean, it's always going to be around but I don't want to give off the impression that this blog is going to be filled with a lot of heavy-handed speculation about expression. At least hopefully not in the same incredibly self-conscious and corny way I did here. I actually find things funny and have a sense of humor, as hard as that is to believe from the above.

My interests are mostly in music and comedy, so that's mostly what I'll cover. I'm not the smartest person in the world and I'm often pretty wrong about stuff. There also only may ever be one person who reads this thing. But I'm not going to let that stop me from doing anything. Being incredibly innocent and naive can be a very good thing.

Anyway, I have a lot to talk about, way too much free time, and absolutely no expectations. So this should be fun.

Stay tuned, kids, and remember to always jam econo!