Saturday, April 16, 2016

HAPPY RECORD STORE DAY!


Last month I picked up Ripped, a book by music journalist, Greg Kot. He’s also half-host of Sound Opinions on WNPR with cohort Greg DeRogatis. Their WBEZ radio show is a little lame, two white guys hanging on to punk as long as they can. Neither gets the split paradigm in music: that rock critics aren’t needed to review mainstream acts like Adele, Kendrick Lamarr or even Coldplay. DJ’s on the radio exist to keep underground music alive in opposition to all corporate endeavor and mediocre music! One of their fans left a recent phone message saying she’d given them a try and they failed. “You are just two guys from the Eighties.” That may sum it up.
Kot’s 2003 overview of the online music revolution is already old news. Remember Napster? My interest is not in the acquisition of the music but the evolution of Rock n’ Roll itself. Music started to be gauged by number of clicks rather than by any other consensus or critical acclaim. I’d be happier if we all shared music communally in a room or automobile rather than sequestered by individual ear buds. The undisputed shift from broadcasting to narrowcasting then nano-casting comes is a no-brainer. The real surprise is the resurgence of vinyl sales, un-ironic at 415 million last year. This happens amid the inevitable closing of record stores! Go figure. Does this mean there is hope for Alternative Music? Will Indie Rock live on?
The quote from Ripped that summed up music companies was from Moby: “It makes bad creative sense, and it makes bad business. Under the circumstances of the music business right now, Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac would have been dropped long before they had a hit because their first few records didn’t do that well. Prince’s first few were not huge sellers. So the major labels in pursuit of quarterly profits are shooting themselves in the foot by putting the lowest common denominator music that works on the radio but doesn’t generate any loyalty. There’s no room for idiosyncratic artists. You have to fit the mold. Right now, if you are not a teen pop star, an R&B artist, a hip-hop artist, a generic alternative band, or a female singer-songwriter, you might as well not even think about making records.”
Thanks, Moby. The charts in America are so mainstream that anything critically acclaimed will naturally be excluded. This leaves out a lot of cool music. As if Nirvana never happened. Curious. I like to imagine the Sex Pistols appearing on the Grammy’s. They make hard core Rap and winners of American Idol look a little tame. People say I’m nuts to watch the Grammies. The music awards represent everything I loath about contemporary music. But “mainstream” spectacle is compelling even if a salute to bad taste.
The whole concept of music as a thing that saves your life and soul is in danger. It happens naturally when you’re a teenager or if you are a musician but for the rest of society? I saw the White Stripes (or was it the Black Keys?) a few years back on the Grammies. I jumped out of my chair, sixteen again.
Kot uses Danger Mouse’s Grey Album as an example of the evolution in delivery of tunes by sampling extensively the Beatle’s White Album and fusing it with Jay-Z’s Black Album. In a musical sense it is the pinnacle of sampling but in postmodern terms it is perhaps over the top and not all that listenable. Danger Mouse was on to something but made little money from his acclaimed album. But in the end, it may be more about the business of music than music itself.
When I arrived in the UK in late 1984, Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart was in the top twenty and on sale in Woolworth. Over the years, the song worked its way into the public consciousness and now lives beyond the generation it was meant for. There is no such egalitarian example in the States. I would never miss Top of the Pops because one wanted to see the latest Indie Band breaking in the charts. The charts were singly interesting even to the “old punks” in case they missed something. What’s wrong with aging gracefully?
What would explain the characterless quality of popular music today? Is it the technology delivery system or have musical forms run out of dynamics? Akin to politics, “Regressive” forward movement and divisive diversity? There are vats of new eclectic music but it is swamped by the so called “popular.” Back to the Grammy’s. What would make meaningful critique possible? A perfect example was the Eagles appearing stone faced, mourning member, Glen Frey. Not a youthful Grammy trying to break molds. On the bright side, a great performance by Kendrick Lamar. It included every trope of slavery and incarceration he could cram in but so compelling! Lady Gaga doing Bowie totally made sense. What was I saying about spectacle? I was reminded of the 2015 Super Bowl Half-Time when sports worlds and music worlds collide. The NFL have long run out of big rock stars for TV numbers. So they dug up over-rated Cold Play who was not enough to hold our drunken attention. So Bruno Mars and Beyonce were added. Oversexed empowerment is now the norm with or without costume malfunction.
A friend of mine once said that she’d gone off pop music because it wasn’t made by geniuses anymore. Rose-colored glasses? I think the point is that back in the day, every record (and radio play) was a development or a breakthrough, part of a grand popular evolution. All classes, races and creeds could tune in.



Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Looking Back?


The week between Christmas and New Years’ is unique. It is a mix of overlapping family activities, best of lists, nostalgia and some good honest reflection. The latter is my favorite part and can get morbid. In order to enhance this mood I put an old punk rock record on the turntable. Technology hinders my critical skills. This LP turned up in a spring-cleaning before heading off to Princeton Record Exchange to unload some excess vinyl for profit. On the way, we listened to Terrestrial Radio. WPRB in Princeton is still my fave, always random and surprising. My family introduced me to Spotify so I can hear anything at anytime exhaustively with a little cable connection to the cigarette lighter in the car but it is to fussy and leads to arguments.
As cultural critic, I feel somewhat responsible for summing up things generally rather than with specific examples. Twenty-Fifteen has been proclaimed “dark” by some in authority. Really? They may have in mind all the violent death and mayhem. It seems that deeper creative currents (insight) have given way to transitional memes that cancel them out. Wrap-ups of the best of 2015? What’s coming up in 2016? All ignore the real place we seem to be historically. Between eras possibly. Let me start with the lame rock and roll NPR show Sound Opinions. They seem to revel in their own middle of the road (unremarkable) tastes that are neither eclectic nor bland. Simply dull. In order to stay up to date they stick popular rap tracks in their lists. Commending 2015 year in music? Why? To be fair, they did a pretty good tribute to David Bowie recently. How could they not?
The list of excellent TV is long and full of popular shows that all have different audiences. No one show can claim a whole demographic except maybe the Walking Dead, Couch Zombies. It gives me nightmares. Speaking of monsters. Last year, I had an altercation with a real Pit-bull and have been considering buying a high-tech crossbow. Some of my friends were voting for the dog!
Political pundits have their own lists. They keep their noses close to the fray never standing back for a wider view. Whether the absurdity of election environment or the affect of Islamic Terrorists and what name they prefer, the Media is cautious, propelled across a shallow surface that never dwells on any meaning in particular apart from opinion itself. Who cares what people think about fleeting situations they don’t fully understand!
On the way back to Philadelphia, we noticed the Revolutionary battlefield at Clarke House. Oddly, the battle took place the week between Christmas 1776 and New Year’s Day 1777. As far as I know it involved the British coming from New York to face Washington’s troops after they crossed the Delaware to attack nasty Hessians in Trenton. That much is fact according the interpretative panels. The location of the record store and radio station in Princeton, New Jersey may be coincidence.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Best Year in Music?

 
When I heard WXPN was having a contest to choose the best year in rock music, I had to chime in. The ads are funny and surprisingly witty for a radio station that takes itself far too seriously. They say they are “Vinyl at Heart.” Don’t believe it. My view has always been that the station needs a good clearing out of all the DJ’s born before 1960! I was born before 1960 but I don’t wear my thinning grey hair in a scrawny ponytail that hangs over a tie-dyed tee-shirt. That is a parody worthy of Portlandia. Personally, I am sick to death of the re-playing of classic songs simply because they warm the heartstrings of rock and roll grandparents who went to Woodstock, drive Subaru Outbacks and fit the demographic. It isn’t that Janis Joplin is awful; I simply have no interest in hearing the songs ever again. Same for many others of that era. Born to be Wild? Did Steppenwolf ever write another tune? I’ve ceased caring. The station’s wholesale ignorance of Punk, the period (when art, subculture and music had an inspired relationship) is remarkable. In contrast, the in-yer-face spokesman for “1979” is a sarcastic hippy-hater decrying 1967. Wow. Putting down Peace and Love? That is mindful for WXPN! As for all the current music the station backs earnestly, there is another bone to pick. Roughly based on soulful or bluesy flashbacks with better drum production, it is the 70‘s repackaged without the danger. This may explain why a band like My Morning Jacket gets to their present, godly standing. They are the most banal, derivative group I have ever heard. I’d rather listen to Adele or Coldplay! Though WXPN promotes their college radio status as wild and crazy, they broadcast a constant stream of boomer-friendly tunes that are already hyped nationally. Don’t let the “Philly-Local” promotions fool you. There is tons of excellent music in Philly that never gets anywhere near the imaginary turntables of University City. Most of these are hardcore bands whose 7-inch 45’s (often pressed on red or yellow vinyl) fill budget bins at the last remaining record stores on South Street. So, surprise. I will cast my vote for 1979, alas. Not sure how that demarcation works. Why not ‘77 or ‘78? At least ‘79 includes Joy Division. If you work at WXPN, you may have to Google the doomed band (that became New Order) on your hippy Smartphone. And, just in case everyone thinks I’m a stuffy aged punk, I state here (in public) that I sing loudly along to any DOORS song I hear on classic radio. Especially when drunk, wearing black leather jeans and heading to my local Roadhouse for a beer.






Monday, September 7, 2015

It's OK To Like What You Do! by Caitlin Peck

Just over two years after my last day of graduate school at Moore College of Art & Design I finally consider my adjustments post art school. I’m comparing what I thought I knew then to my actual experience in the art world now. After 7 years submerged in art academia, I only knew artists and artsy people. In the past two years, I’ve sidled up to more non-artists and realized art school is really more a corral for artists rather than a reflection of what my social circle would consist of upon release. My new crew gained me insight on two tandem lessons. Number one: don’t take yourself too seriously because, number two: no one has any idea what you’re talking about. In the close-knit community of a MFA program, where you’re regurgitating your thesis over and over again to your peers and professors, eventually everyone becomes as much of an expert on your research as yourself. I remember one of my first interactions outside of the art school bubble and the inevitable question: “So, what is your work about?” My elevator speech suddenly sounded completely inadequate. For over two years I was practicing mine on 9 other people and thought it concise and perfected. In reality, my listeners perfected their understanding. Over time I learned the importance of stripping away the eye-rolling art jargon to build a more relatable subject line to my studio practice. In not taking myself too seriously, I struggled outside of art school with this confusing revelation: I can do what I want. There is jest about Catholic or Jewish guilt; if things are enjoyable, they can’t be good. No one talks about art school guilt. Nearly all ex-art students I encounter suffer from this. One of my problems with higher learning in the arts is artists are trained to meet some goal at the determination of others. Sometimes that means sacrifice. Graduate classes had such a serious attitude and after graduation I thought my studio practice needed to be met in the same way. It doesn’t. I became more productive in the studio once “fun” lost its rank as another kind of f-word and realized it’s OK to like what I do.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

GO SELL A WATCHMAN


When I first heard about the imminent publishing of Harper Lee’s so-called second novel, I knew there was something hinky going on. Clearly, it had not been set in motion by the author (89) who lives in a nursing home. After trying to publish my own first novel, I have experienced the industry's peculiarities. They are much akin to the art world in which all gatekeepers want a track record (branding) no matter what the quality of the work. This is why the same artists are shown over and over locally and worldwide. This forces masses of creative individuals to invent identities online. This is called nano-casting, so I’m told, replacing previous narrowcasting ­– all derived from the original word, broadcasting, if you follow the flow of media jargon. Here novices can tough it out in a crowd of millions with a personal websites and a Twitter accounts. There is always a chance of discovery in a sea of drek, incessant social media and celebrity bullshit. Good luck, sucker.
I read the first chapter of Watchman last week in the Wall Street Journal. Later, there was a follow up editorial about the discovery of the manuscript in Harper’s safe-deposit box by her life-long attorney, Tonya B. Carter in Alabama, 2011. There was a PBS documentary with a story of a different slant, mostly to do with the civil rights aspects of both book and film. The rest will come out in the wash as everyone discovers Go Set A Watchman was clearly the trial go for ‘Mockingbird.’ It was written before our beloved American classic novel featuring adorable tomboy, Scout and upstanding lawyer dad, Gregory Peck. He ends up representing all progressive, liberal whites then and now. I mention Peck because I have seen the film numerous times while never reading the actual book! My High School English class read Moby Dick instead and Mark Twain, two guy writers. Sorry. My ignorance is appalling, but can you see the wool being pulled over us sheep? Is it a trivial matter that Peck appeared in both films? Well, maybe, but I digress.
Yet another recent PBS radio discussion was on point and questioned the ethics of publishing Watchman. A guest author – die-hard literary guy who’d never seen the film version – used the term, “sinister packaging.” I concur. They played Reese Witherspoon reading a bit of the same chapter from the book-on-tape.  Fine, but all this fuss is not just about Mockingbird but the subsequent film that met many more eyes over many decades. That is the nature of popular culture. I have picked up a flyer from my local bricks & mortar bookstore – there is still one in NW Philly – advertising the sale and reading of Watchman accompanied by a screening of Mockingbird. I have to curb my enthusiasm. What about the connection between Truman Capote (In Cold Blood, another book and film) and Nelle? Is there a darker side to this story?

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Immigration Day


The weed whackers were out in force. They came from South of the Border and drove up in trucks with trailers for the mowers. A holy racket took place. Mucho trabaho over nothing. I was stuck on one tricky paragraph that didn’t want to scan. Outside, it sounded like an F-16 landing in the street. I hoped it was one of ours. I looked out the door and saw grass in mid air, its life cut short.  Clouds of dust covered my seven-cylinder Chevy wagon. Now, I thought, I’d have to wait for a rainstorm to clean it up.
Most authors have some sort of writer’s block but not me. I am held to lower standards. Plus, I don’t have a publisher or an agent. That sucks. I post my work on a blog that pays tens cent per piece, 250 words. The next day another troop of lawn manicurists arrived at another neighbor’s yard. I was waiting for the nectarines to ripen when I heard footsteps on the porch. I reached for a kitchen knife. It was the mailman with my monthly bills. We instructed each other to ‘Have A Good One’ and I retreated back to my sofa chair with my knife. I decided to kick up the espresso machine to help finish my essay on garden tools. It started out well then trailed off into a diatribe about how rap music sucks. I know more about hip-hop than you might think since I reside in Philadelphia – this explains why I don’t have an agent. I used to listen to DJ John Peel (may he rest in peace) in London in the Eighties when rap and hard-core off-set one another. Sampling was new and totally connected to post-modern theories. See Beastie Boys. What did I say about trailing off?
Later, I stared out the window when I noticed the din subsiding. Always a bad sign, staring out the window. Hours drift by in a minute. I forced myself back to my Venus-on-a-Halfshell lap-top and finished the article about a chainsaw on a stick for hard to reach twigs. It was louder than an Egyptian F-16. I imagined a Mig-19 in fifth gear. I made note of this in my consumer report for Candy’s Man. The next day the review returned via a black-cloud. I had been summarily dismissed. You may wonder how a content provider can be fired by someone they’ve never met? The next article was a very short essay about faceless-assholes who fire work-at-home creatives.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Father's Day Auction


Last Father’s Day I ventured out to an art auction at Material Culture, a large enterprise that sells ersatz antiques, furnishings and decorative arts for appointing houses with an exotic touch. I call it Freak-Chic. You can buy a cast bronze Buddha, Persian rugs or a weathered wardrobe once-owned by a Pasha. Everything is high priced so I wasn’t hopeful I’d be picking up any bargains for my skinny art collection. Had I known how good the quality and how inexpensive the art, I would have brought a checkbook. There was a mix of unknown modernists ­(long dead) and lots of curious outsider art. This made for interesting pickings for the audience of amateur collectors. The small paintings of the ‘unknown’ Javior Mayoral were particularly fetching. Some were bid up on-line to a couple hundred dollars but several were left unsold around fifty dollars. I kicked myself! They resembled mini-Magritte or pre-pin-up Picabia. Definetly like Philly’s, Jim Houser. Mayoral’s work was well painted full of semi-surreal and comic sayings. My Googlie research could not turn up much on the artist except that he’s Latino and lives in Miami! I imagine him to be fairly young, judging from the low price points. Had he applied, he would have been accepted into the Woodmere Museum’s Open Show up at the moment, creatively curated by our own Dufala brothers. That is another story.
There were more authentic outsider artists like Jim Bloom (not Jim Nutt) that could pass for low quality Basquiat. They looked swell on the Power Point display but were lacking a little something up close on actual walls. These seemed to some stir interest in the crowd. I almost bought one accidently when I scratched my right ear. Tabletops and glass cabinets featured packs of drawings and watercolors of all sorts, all inexpensive. There were even a few Japanese 100 year old prints for a snip. I always wanted a real Japanese print especially a scene depicting the Battle of Tsushima, 1905! As for current neo-Outsiders; in decades past, I used to deride them as mere skateboard painters. That was snobbish! Next time I‘m bringing some cash.