Odds 'n' Ends

Hey gang! I've got a preview for the Los Campesinos! show up in the Cardinal today, including an interview with their bassist, Ellen. It's not too, too long, and you can read all of it here.

Believe it or not, there are still tickets available. Which wouldn't be so unbelievable if the show the night before it hadn't sold out. Turns out, I also went to that show, and I wrote about it here. One part of the show that particularly struck me, and one I mention in the post, is that Sleigh Bells frontwoman Alexis Krauss might be a better template for the next Madonna than the commonly held working definition of Lady Gaga. Think about it and get back to me.

But tonight's Los Campesinos! show isn't the only big bill headed through Wisconsin this weekend. Daytrotter's third installment of the Barnstormer Tour hits Lake Geneva and Milwaukee Thursday and Friday, this time towing Ra Ra Riot, Delta Spirit and Free Energy, among others, along for the ride. I'm not stupid enough to question Daytrotter's taste in music, but I am a bit perturbed by their calendar. How can they in good faith call a tour a "Barnstormer" tour if one of its stops is in Milwaukee's Turner Hall. I'm not saying Daytrotter is selling out, I'm just saying. DIY isn't really DIY if the Y has a built-in marketing machine like Turner Hall's. Sure, the trio of Milwaukee venues—Turner, Pabst and Riverside—have really taken to booking big names in indie music; but—and correct me if I'm wrong about this—the point of a so-called Barnstormer Tour is that sometimes a "big" name isn't the same as an important one. Or, if it is, that "big" name can manage without a "big" showcase.

Back in the saddle

Kevin and I finally have a new podcast up. This time we try to talk about the whole "South Park" debacle, which may or may not have been more than we should have bitten off. Scope it here.

I also wrote a short joint on Small Black's re-released EP over at the Cardinal. Which I guess means I'm back in full effect. I don't think it actually says much of anything (the article, I mean), but the EP sure is good. I mentioned something about it before, but just so this post isn't a total waste of time, watch them perform a track off of it for The Tripwire here:

Monday Culture Club - Built to Spill

I can never really gauge how much people like Built to Spill. Those who know them seem to assume their relevance, which prevents them from ever really getting the exposure they deserve. But even among Built to Spill-appreciating corners, nobody really seems to talk about There's Nothing Wrong With Love, and I see a big problem with that.

For whatever reason, some bands don't assert their own best or favorite album; rather, it comes down to individual experience. It's often the case with the White Stripes, Radiohead and several others that have recorded several albums of relatively equal caliber. There's Nothing Wrong With Love is the first Built to Spill album I heard, and that's why I like it most.

Sure, Keep It Like a Secret is perfectly formulated from front to back; sure, You in Reverse is irrefutably awesome. But none of those bring me back to my silver stereo and the CD-R on my basement floor on a cold winter day, nor do they make any undeniable argument to rate themself above TNWWL.

Part of what makes TNWWL so much more endearing to me are its flaws. There are only a handful of truly remarkable songs, but the imperfections of songs like "Reasons" and "Distopian Dream Girl" lend them a quality as if they were recorded in a garage somewhere in preparation for a high school showcase. And, coincidentally enough, when I was introduced to TNWWL, I was doing a lot of that very same thing.

But even more than unstoppable jam "Big Dipper," the song that sticks out most for me is "Twin Falls." However riddled with interesting metaphors and substantive anecdotes, most of Doug Martsch's vocals don't mean very much. They connect dots that are way over their or our heads, but "Twin Falls" is the only time we really get a truly vulnerable snapshot. Even on "Car," Martsch is talking about what "comets, stars and moons are all about." He probably describes it best when he says, "I want specifics on the general idea." But on "Twin Falls" we get specifics on the specifics. And when he says "It don't bother me" and when they cut it off short of two minutes and transition into the cascading guitars on "Some," it's almost as if they're hanging their heads in shame. They never meant it to go there, but I'm pretty glad they did.

My brother—olde Gregg, who's still posting can't-miss jams over at skirts—once gave me possibly the most resonant piece of advice I've ever received when he said if a girl liked Modest Mouse but didn't like Built to Spill, I shouldn't be dating her anyway.

It's not really that Built to Spill sounds exactly like Modest Mouse, but it's that Built to Spill is such an unavoidable gateway to so many important strains of music. They're the fulcrum between Modest Mouse and Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket and the Black Keys, and countless others. They sit at the center of indie rock's spokes, I suppose. They're the Dardanelles of indie rock, a touchstone that connects you to where you want to go. And so when someone appreciates Modest Mouse without acknowledging Built to Spill, they're essentially Xerxes. That is, they probably like Modest Mouse because they write pop songs for VH1 or something. At some point shared interests are too ambiguous and you need to establish a shared reason for the interest. My reason for interest is almost always Built to Spill.

Brief aside: The first working title for this blog was "General Specifics," drawn from the aforementioned quote from "Car." ... In case you were wondering.

There's Nothing Wrong With Love was released in 1994.

Building nothing out of nothing

I'm not going to turn this into another affront to Lady Gaga, but I found this post particularly interesting. Don't ask me how I found it—it's a long story. But the concept itself blew me away: Lady Gaga for hipsters. This video, a strikingly high-quality studio cover of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" by a band that looks like they paid a lot of money to look like they're really poor.

I did some rudimentary research and learned that the hipster-Gaga is referred to as Lissie and she's blowing up the Internet. She performs a lot of, uh, what do they call them, uh, "intimate" covers of more glammed-up pop songs, it seems. She also has a lot of original compositions that sound like a cross between Neko Case with a sore throat and a bored Elizabeth Powell, which is cool I guess. It's interesting to see a group so bland get so much media attention from MySpace and the like, but I guess that's just capitalism. If Land of Talk (Powell) wanted to get picked up by a major marketing machine like MySpace they should've recorded higher quality promo videos. But that's neither here nor there.

On this "hipster GaGa" joint, Lissie & co. have taken the vocals at face value while stripping the synth hook altogether. They add churning, meandering guitars that wind up exactly where they started—nowhere. From where I'm sitting, the cover is literally void of substance or creativity. But Lissie's wearing plaid and strumming triumphantly so we're supposed to take her as the next Liz Phair. Her band includes guys with beards and she has a quirky way to spell her name, so that makes them "hipster" enough for the "hipsterspinster" and her Internet blog. Life is what you make it, and apparently so is linguistics.

Whether my side should be considered maligning an abuse of semantics or an indictment on society depends on how insulted you are, which probably says a lot about you and your relative hipster-dom. At the WUD "Hipster Culture Panel" last year, there was only one thing that everybody on board could agree on: Nobody knows what "hipster" really means, but the ones who deserve the label never openly admit to being one. And I guess those who do call themselves hipsters listen to stuff like Lissie, stuff with no substance but plenty of style. Just like that Internet web blog. Either the hipsterspinster has no idea what she's talking about or what she's talking about makes no sense at all.

Just for a reference point: Nowadays, THIS is probably the most hipster thing around. Behind the veil of South African street culture, Die Antwoord take and amplify every bit of irony left in us. Song so bad; Zef so fresh.

April Mixtape - Like a Hole in the Head

I've spent the last week and a half in various states of illness. Each time wellness would peak its head into my periphery and I thought I was scot free, a migraine would pop up and flush relief from the picture. Likewise, it's April. Alongside the rising temperatures come, um, rain showers. Each time the sun sneaks out and warms the lake, a billowing gang of clouds, um, rains on the parade. And so both Mother Nature and my immune system have both independently and informally dubbed April the month of tempered expectations. Accordingly, here's a mixtape of jams tepidly anxious for summer. They hint toward full liberation, but still acknowledge that we've (most of us, anyways) got final exams in a couple of weeks. And, in some cases, more chicken noodle soup than we'd have liked.

Click here to download Like a Hole in the Head.

The Radio Dept. - "Heaven's On Fire"
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - "Bright Lit Blue Skies"
The Harlem Shakes - "Sickos"
Gauntlet Hair - "I Was Thinking..."
Sunset Rubdown - "Stadiums and Shrines II"
Arms - "Kids Aflame"
The 1900s - "When I Say Go"
Belle & Sebastian - "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying"
Liam Finn - "Second Chance"
Twin Sister - "All Around and Away We Go"
Whitey - "Cigarette"
Freelance Whales - "Generator ^ Second Floor"
Cults - "Go Outside"

Monday Culture Club - Destroyer

At the risk of pigeon-holing the Culture Club into any particular niche, this week's focus is another underappreciated gem from another underappreciated songwriter. But while Mark Linkous' Sparklehorse created alt-rock coated in self deprecation, Dan Bejar's Destroyer perfects folk blues thoroughly doused in wine-induced delirium.

"Folk blues" carries more of a ruggish connotation than I intend, and Bejar warrants more of a comparison to David Bowie and Donald Fagen than Dan Auerbach or even Bob Dylan. His sound is smooth and his vocal delivery could buff a blemish out of a glass of Cristal. But his songs are also too reserved, too self-contained to fully warrant a glam-pop moniker. He's a showman in craft, but he's still a lonely drunkard strumming in front of a fireplace at heart.

The Culture Club premise of one album per week paints a pretty trivial border around Destroyer, and because I'm the one who created the rules I'm allowing myself to break them. So while I'll write almost exclusively about Streethawk: A Seduction, keep in mind that not all songs embedded here are Streethawk joints. Case in point:

Among commoners, Bejar is normally recognized as The Aloof Member of The New Pornographers; but in at least one respect he's the only member who remains constantly grounded. While Carl Newman turns more and more into Canada's Ted Leo and Neko Case is happy enough just palling around, Bejar is the only one in the "super group" who maintains his auteur moniker. His pervasiveness is arguably what made their latest, Challengers, so worthwhile. And while I'll argue that his voice is most perfectly encapsulated in 2006's Destroyer's Rubies, Streethawk (2001) is the first point at which he actualizes his potential as a songwriter. He doesn't have the orchestral grandeur to match (that would come on Rubies), but his lyrical acumen, his ear for life-affirming profundities that concoct triumphant misery and his penchant for unhinged storytelling take the relatively sparse instrumentation to a taller plateau.

"Auteur" is a tricky label in music because it can easily be mistaken for anything eccentric. Truth be told, nobody can really say how much of an auteur Spencer Krug is because, through his six-some projects, he's never really been paired with an opposing voice. Distinctiveness doesn't denote a higher influence until it's given a spectrum-crossing counterpoint. You need to beat something before you can ever actually win. For Bejar, that counterpoint manifests itself in Carl Newman's light-headed power pop.

The New Porno's linear pop creates a peculiar vice for Bejar's stumbling delirium, a straight arrow that Bejar tries to coax into a meandering path. But while the forceful commandeering is destined to either break an axel or topple into a ditch, Bejar somehow nudges it into, well, "Myriad Harbour:"

I can't walk to Teddywedgers for breakfast without running into four or five inebriated assholes playing original compositions on the sidewalk. For the most part, pedestrians just pass on by. But when a troubadour dons a shirt to promote literacy and starts singing Neil Young covers, 10-20 middle-aged couples block traffic to soak up the spectacle. That dynamic seems to be more or less what happens to Bejar. Commoners get caught up in the glitz of Newman's joviality while Bejar's the one who actually has something to say. He's drunk, sure, and an asshole, maybe; but whoa nelly can he write a pop song.

So while Challengers was released some seven years after the fact, Streethawk is still an important touchstone in that it shows Bejar's peak as a self-contained oracle of sorts. It's ambitious enough to bombard expectations, yet humble enough to establish intimacy. While it might not be his opus, it is the fertile foundation from which his diverse cornucopia is plucked.

YouTube really hand-cuffed my ability to hit the more distinguished points in Streethawk, and whether it was a result of that or not, the conversation really dissolved into a tribute to Bejar on the whole. So as far as Streethawk is concerned, you'll have to take my word for it. As far as YouTube is concerned, you'll have to trust me when I say I'm working on a replacement.

Monday Culture Club - Sparklehorse

The Daily Cardinal used to throw around this weekly feature called "Culture Club." It was a collective of music-minded Cardinal writers who would meet each week to discuss and write short blurbs about albums of yore that deserve re-evaluation. We even had an awesome graphic (which I'll try to track down because it was sweet). We covered Paul Simon's Graceland (called it the modern equivalent to Pet Sounds) and Combat Rock (heck, possibly an even more apt equivalent to Pet Sounds), and just when we were about to go into MC5's Kick Out the Jams we pulled the plug. Everybody laughed at us, nobody took us seriously, and they made us feel bad about ourselves so we did what any sensible group would do: We curled up and died. And then I brought it to my desktop and took a defibrillator to it and now we have this.

The inaugural album in these parts is none other than Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain by the late, great Sparklehorse. The product of multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous, Sparklehorse borrowed loosely from the guitar arrangements of Big Star, electric buzz of Grandaddy and the pop-minded melodrama of Elliott Smith.

Linkous struggled with depression and drug addiction for the majority of his life, but what set him apart from Smith and any other run-of-the-mill folk instrumentalist was his tongue-in-cheek self-evaluation. The wry perspective in his songs lends a duality to his self-deprecation in that it can just as easily be engulfing than ignored for the grander pop sensibilities.

The second installment of Nitsuh Adebe's "Why We Fight" columns over at Pitchfork (which is more than worth a read and can be located here) discusses a view not entirely dissimilar from one I've expressed in which strains of music can either be novel and outside familiarity (in his case an amphibian outside of the water, in mine simply chaos) while others are familiar, albeit comforting (in his case an underwater uncle, in mine simply perfectly formulated conventions). The crux is that operating within established norms (that is, underwater or in peaceful organization) is considerably more difficult because you're swimming upstream and competing with a plethora of similar-sounding artists. However, on that same token, the more novel or chaotic "amphibians" of bands tend to carry flaws—however negligible—because they could not reasonably have perfected an unconquered sonic territory. And thus it follows that the fish that tend to make it to the front of their pack are generally far more enjoyable because they—by necessity—are much more perfect entities. So while Linkous' commentary is refreshing, what makes this album so important is not what new ground it paved or what new doors it opened for new artists. Rather, it's important because—like most else of Sparklehorse's discography—it is near perfect.

Dreamt For Light Years was released in 2006.

Concurring opinions, added weight

I caught a lot of flak for that Lady Gaga joint last week, and for good reason. It was hastily written and poorly assembled. But I still stand by my argument, and it seems I'm not alone. Today in Pitchfork (via an interview with MTV), one Miss M.I.A. had a few choice words for Ms. Gaga herself:

"People say we're similar, that we both mix all these things in the pot and spit them out differently, but she spits it out exactly the same. None of her music's reflective of how weird she wants to be or thinks she is. She models herself on Grace Jones and Madonna, but the music sounds like 20-year-old Ibiza disco, you know? She's not progressive, but she's a good mimic. She sounds more like me than I fucking do!"

That sounds more or less like my exact argument. Gaga builds herself up to be some pop behemoth, an idol for all seasons breaking down borders with her charisma and flair. But in fact she's a shell of an artist who makes a spectacle of an honest artform.

The line of argument that normally stems from this is that of super irony. Gaga ironizes the concept of "pop star" itself and turns our own perceptions on their heads. Essentially, she's mocking the very MTV culture she's endorsing. It's the millennial update to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. But if that were to be the case, then shouldn't we expect her to speak out? Doesn't she have to expose the charade at some point to validate any suspicions that she is anything but a product of the very machine she's fueling? If she really is poking fun at her own fans, how far does she go before her effect is counterproductive, dragging more well-intentioned fans into her doldrums before creating an enlightenment?

But there is one side of the argument I've left out thus far, and it's the only side of the argument I can even partially get behind—that of Gaga as a gay rights activist.

The idea is that Harvey Milk couldn't have enacted the paradigm shift necessary for appropriate change—he was too much like us, too normal. We (that is, the royal We, meaning public opinion writ large) could relate to him, and therefore were less willing to forgive his differences. He was so much like us, so why wasn't he like us?

Likewise, Elton John became too much of an accommodationist. He spoke for gay rights, sure, but he still sang songs to/for straight people.

The same thing happened in the Civil Rights movement. W. E. B. DuBois and the NAACP made waves in legislative circles through victories in the courts, but public opinion wasn't as ready to accept a full-on movement because these—the free-born northerners—weren't the African Americans they knew. The full paradigmatic upheaval needed to come from the roots, from the dirtiest, poorest counties of the South. The Civil Rights movement needed a leader who represented not the privileged, free and northern class of African Americans, but one directly from the downtrodden, recently enslaved and so-called "rotten" class.

So in that way Harvey Milk is our Abraham Lincoln (or possibly DuBois), Lady Gaga our MLK.

In that same vein, Elton John is the Booker T. Washington, too much of an accommodationist to actually enact change. He speaks for gay rights, sure, but he still sings songs to/for straight people, just hoping he can appease the rest of the world with his version of Tuskegee University. And that's just how Gaga's isolating garishness can be the ram that bucks public ignorance.

The part of this that still unsettles me is that Gaga makes such a spectacle of what we associate with "queer." When people see her extravagant outfits and outlandish stage antics, they don't remark, "What an awesome display of expression," or, "How creative!" Instead, they say, "Oh Gaga, she so cray cray;" and that's how we (or, rather, they, I suppose) label it. But that might be an unavoidable side effect. MLK didn't need to normalize his status because he was already established as a southern Baptist. Gaga, however, needs to separate herself from just another pop star by making some of the most ostracized expressionists fit into the same mold as the idolized icons (pop stars). In other words, this fruitless "art" is merely her moral re-alignment, affirming that what we are about to hear are not just the words of some pop star, but the words of a gay pop star. And, empirically, that should make a difference. But assuming this is simply an awkward gestation period, at the end of it we should expect Gaga to speak out and actually live up to her MLK billing.

Because otherwise she's back to exactly what M.I.A. and myself have called her: A no-talent hack who thrives on overdeveloped aesthetics and underdeveloped opinions.

Titus Andronicus at the Project Lodge

I don't know the exact number of people the Project Lodge can comfortably hold, but I know it is about 30 fewer than were crammed in to see Titus Andronicus Tuesday night.

It's a little disconcerting how frequently Titus rifle through lineups. This was the fourth time I've seen them live and featured the fourth different lineup. But I think I understand how it goes: Titus Andronicus is not for the faint of heart... Or people with other interests or obligations. This Madison show was not originally on their tour, but after the dates were released, frontman Patrick Stickles wrote a blog post asking for people to fill in their empty dates. As he said it, "Black Flag never took days off, so why should we?"

"Can you hear the words that are coming out of my mouth?"

Not only was the fivesome a strain on the venue's capacity, but the PA system had a hard time holding it all in as well. Frontman Patrick Stickles, understandably frustrated with delaying the set, finally just said, "Well fuck it, I'll just yell louder then." Considering responses to similar equipment failures by other indie stalwarts (I'm looking at you, Bradford Cox), this was a pretty monumental (and, of course, rock 'n' roll) moment.

What happened to all those guys in the back? Well fuck them.

At some point, people began trickling out the back and congregating under the awning where they could enjoy fresh air and the full sound. It was not a huge deal, as all of them eventually returned, but it served as a handy microcosm for the band's significance worldwide. On the outside, people stand around and smoke cigarettes. They take in the rain and have conversations. On the inside, strangers take off their shirts and wear as much communal sweat as their own. And all the while, Stickles spurs chants of "It's still us against them."

It's easy for someone to preach rock 'n' roll or a sense of community from center stage at Soldier Field (I'm talking about U2, Bono specifically, here), but it takes another kind of person altogether to be able to bring the altar of rock to a tiny art space in the Midwest.

There aren't many props decorating the stage at ProLo, and Titus aren't ones for gimmickry. But the one thing they do carry is an American flag affixed to the front of their keyboard like a lawn ornament, as if to remind us of one thing: This is Titus Andronicus' world, we're just living in it.

Heat Check - BBU

Kevin and I are taking spring break a week late at the podcast. But you can still scope the one we did last week right here. The heck if I remember what we talked about, but I remember having a whole lot of fun putting it together.

But I'm out of my shell for another reason now, and that's to talk about BBU. Their newest album/mixtape, Fear of a Clear Channel Planet, features many of the lyrical diatribes you'd expect from a band so clearly trying to replace Dead Prez, but unsurprisingly they're not as swift or intelligent (or as racist). Regardless, they're a welcome respite from the trite, unsubstantiated backpack-rap-gone-swiss-army schtick that seems to have consumed much of the hip hop game nowadays. And make no mistake—BBU aren't the militant Panthers a Dead Prez reference would assume: These guys can bounce, too.

Most notably, scope below for "Chi Don't Dance," the newest submission to 2010's Ultimate Party Mixxx (mix may not actually exist). It's hot, sure; real hot. But it's also got enough substance beneath its hop-scotch creep to sustain considerable strain. All I'm trying to say is, this isn't just another "Stanky Leg."

For further listening, they're giving away Fear of a Clear Channel Planet here.

Nu track - Band of Horses

Well this is a pleasant surprise. Band of Horses just released their new album's tracklisting and the video for the first single off their forthcoming third LP, Infinite Arms. "Compliments" is busier than older BoH tracks, and it doesn't allow much room for Ben Bridwell to flex those earth-quaking pipes of his, but it doesn't sound overly claustrophobic. It's a lot more Pacific Ocean than Dirty South, but after two full albums of gorgeously wistful summery haze, it's probably an appropriate time for a change.

The video makes Transformers out of landscapes, and you can scope it here:

(Or, if you're having problems, at the band's website here)