Midnight Prayers

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Month: October, 2013

Day 171: The Day Lou Died – Finding Religion with Frightened Rabbit and Augustines in Philadelphia

This review was originally posted here.

I went to see Augustines play with Frightened Rabbit on the day Lou Reed died.  He was mentioned once, when Augustines’s frontman Billy McCarthy dedicated a song in his honor, but everything felt bigger that night in the Electric Factory by virtue of timing.  Reed’s shadow hung over everything, and the industrial-sized venue felt a little more connected because of it.  It was as if we were all vaguely related and found our way to the same wake.  But where do you go from there?

The night opened with Philistines Jr., a project helmed by indie producing auteur Peter Katis, whose production work you’ve probably heard on The National’s Boxer or either of Frightened Rabbit’s first two records.  As a musician, Katis sounded far from polished, stringing together a set of songs that went in so many directions at once they barely ended up moving at all.  It’s unsurprising that he played like a producer, throwing different sounds at you, ones he’s perfected from the control room, but I left wondering how a producer could be so defiantly without a sound, without a discernable identity.  He didn’t elude categorization; he laughed at it.

These were songs meant to be played for friends; they felt stuck in that stage.  There was something exciting about his unpredictability, something that made me laugh as much as it made me respect him.  When one of his songs turned itself over to a hard rock breakdown that somehow melded both Iron Maiden and Tigers Jaw, I found myself wishing he’d spend some more time alone in a room with a guitar instead of a soundboard.  His recklessness has legs.

When Augustines took the stage not long after, I was sure the word derivative would find its way into my notes.  A three piece suit based in Seattle (recently, from Brooklyn), they looked like radio rock cast-offs, with frontman Billy McCarthy dressed like a Mumford and bassist Eric Sanderson channeling Nate Ruess.  Then they started playing.  And it was loud, so loud that you could see the nosebleed seats rising up behind them.  McCarthy’s built like Marcus Mumford and sings with that same dynamism, like he’s trying to get you to believe in something.  For Mumford, that thing seems to be God.  I’m not sure what it is for McCarthy, but I’m ready to buy in.

By the band’s second song, the spectacularly melodramatic “Chapel Song”, McCarthy was less Mumford-y than he was Bono-ing.  He had that same sense of space, that illusion that he could reach just about anybody who heard him.  The band’s first album is called Rise Ye Sunken Ships, and, on Sunday, you got the feeling McCarthy was trying to raise the Titanic.  When he dedicated a song to Lou Reed, I just wanted him to keep going.  We knew where he came from, and we were dying to see where he’d go.  Our answer probably lies in the band’s tremendous new cut, “Cruel City”, a break-up song aimed at New York that uses late-era Phil Collins as a jumping off point.  Sunday, it sounded like a band finding its footing.

Then Frightened Rabbit took the stage in front of a backdrop that looked like it had been lifted from a Kubrick film, and, out of the gate, their set wasn’t exactly a religious experience.  It was the set they were supposed to play, which means they slowed down “The Modern Leper” to accentuate its bite then sprinted through “Nothing Like You”.  By the time Scott Hutchison took a moment to thank the audience for coming out, I felt comfortable, an adjective that doesn’t quite fit Frightened Rabbit.  I was sure I knew how the rest of the set would play out.

I was wrong.

The next two songs built some tension by crashing the lingering precision of “Backyard Skulls” head-on into the nostalgic folk of “Old Old Fashioned”.  Both songs muse on the idea of memory, but offer dissenting opinions.  You can’t have the nostalgia without the guilt.  It took this discomforting thesis to shake me loose, to obliterate my repose.  Right around then the very real emotions started kicking in, with only a few having to do with Lou Reed.  Soon, Scott Hutchison was alone onstage with an acoustic guitar, poised to wreck the crowd.  Sipping on “Fuck this Place” and “Poke” like they were two drinks poured in an empty apartment, he did just that.  We didn’t stand a chance.

The rest of the set kept up the assault, winding its way through backhanded love songs (“My Backwards Walk”) and some genuine hope for finding another, comparably scarred soul (“The Woodpile”).  It was a lot to handle, but that’s kind of what you signed up for by walking through the front door.  Frightened Rabbit can get gnarly, and their finale hit on just about every level.  It started with the gnarliest of Frightened Rabbit songs, “Keep Yourself Warm”, which introduced into itself an interesting wrinkle when Hutchison pointed his microphone towards the audience during the final chorus.  “You won’t find love in a, won’t find love in a hole/It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm.”  He was holding us all accountable, calling everyone there out for the transgressions they’ve invariably made, reminding us of our presence.  There was no hiding.  We’d been identified as both criminals and confidants.  It was as close to a religious experience as we were going to get, but the process didn’t feel like it was healing anything.  Again, this was calculated.  So when Hutchison powered up “The Loneliness and the Scream”, people screamed, others cried, one couple broke up (literally).  You could feel the release, the acceptance we were all taking part in.  It was something along the lines of penance, a transcendence Lou Reed once wrote about, and for the first time all night Hutchison’s words didn’t dictate the mood.  “In the loneliness/Oh, the loneliness/And the scream to prove/To everyone that I exist.”  We were all there, we all existed, we didn’t need any more proof.

Long after the lights came up, a friend turned to me, mouthing the word, “Wow”.  All I did was nod.  It’s all I could do.  There was nothing left to say.

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Day 170: Playlist Music – Crash of Rhinos’s “Big Sea”

There’s not a whole lot of land left to colonize in emo.  The genre’s tropes are well established and, for the most part, uniformly grating.  You don’t need to look far into the canon to get the point; it’s sensitive white dudes singing about, around, to, for, and in memory of girls they’ve probably never spoken to.  There’s something to be said about such a crucial yet superficial separation between writer and subject, but very few of these bands think too much about that, choosing instead to sling together mad-libs about control, pain, and death.  You get the feeling that most emo singers picture themselves as Lloyd Dobler, but they don’t have the same kind of masculinity complex.  There’s just not enough conflict to make things interesting.  We’ve all fallen in love, and we’ve all had people not feel the same way.  Emo imagines itself as a comforting outlet for such a situation but really just shows us how fucking annoying people going through that shit can be.  You don’t want to spend time with emo; you end up wanting to run away from it.

But, like any genre, there are outliers.  For emo, the most successful bands tend to take up the most space, letting their sounds conflate to their outsized emotions.  In 2002, Taking Back Sunday did this by contriving a dialogue between two singers who seemed to be completely unaware of each other’s existence.  This conceit drew a line through a shared consciousness, and the pairing of Adam Lazarra and Ben Nolan’s voices started to resemble overlapping Shakespearean monologues.  All this melodrama culminated in the genuinely angry “You’re So Last Summer”, a song that benefitted from the sheer power of Lazarra and Nolan finally syncing up and nailing a vindictive point home.  “Cause I’m a wishful thinker with the worst intentions/This will be the last chance you ever get to drop my name”*.  It was the logical end to the album’s internal struggle, and, even if you found it somewhat shallow, you believed every fucking word.

Around 2010, emo got another endlessly entertaining entry from BandCamp all-stars Crash of Rhinos called Distal.  It’s an album that takes up the most space possible, that feels like it contains a few months-long relationship inside its 40 minute running time.  There’s screaming, but it’s spread across five voices, each of them resembling the last in the way voices at an AA meeting begin to sound alike.  You don’t feel like singing along to Distalas much as you feel like testifying.

The album opens with a tour-de-force of ravenous cymbals and dissenting guitars called “Big Sea” that eventually builds to a brothers-in-arms sing along about shared suffering.  “Where was that luck/When we needed it?”  Emo might be hard to swallow when it’s just one dude wining, but when there are five or so sharing in the excessive sorrow, you can’t help but commiserate.

Listen to “Big Sea” below:

*Someone cc: Drake on this one.

Day 169: Playlist Music – Great Good Ok Fine’s “You’re the One For Me”

Indie rock and R&B are crossing their wires right now in much the same way Rap and R&B did back in the early 00’s.  Acts like The Weekend, How to Dress Well, and even Frank Ocean are blurring the line between clouded, druggy indie dives and R. Kelly’s smooth, tailored bedroom.  It’s telling that, as Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home” sits at #5 on Billboard’s Hot 100, the most discussed R&B album to come out this year is still The Weeknd’s Kiss Land, even if most of the discussion is the opposite of glowing.  As an album, Kiss Land was heavy on atmosphere and obtusely thin on filling in the sketches female characters populating its fringes (in most instances, he only drew their genitalia), but it also had a finger on the pulse of a changing scene, a shift that was given so much critical support that it earned a lot of people’s willful ignorance to its problematic themes.  Kiss Land, then, presented itself unintentionally as an urgent warning against allowing such a drastic shift in an already problematically misogynistic genre.  I mean, if R. Kelly is capable of statutory rape, imagine what the guy who sang, “For what it’s worth, I hope you enjoy the show/Cause if you’re back here only takin’ pictures/You gon’ have to take your ass home”, is capable of (not to mention the explicit reference he makes to filming a sex tape earlier in the same verse.  It’s almost as if he’s welcoming Kelly’s soul to posses him).

This isn’t to say that Abel Tesfaye will end up in the kind of legal trouble Kelly faced, or that the scene they both inhabit is inherently sexually destructive.  I do, however, want to point to the danger the drug and rape culture The Weeknd routinely champions presents as it takes a critically focused spot in our popular culture.  We just can’t be afraid to push back, and Kiss Land was a good reminder of that (so was the reaction to Rick Ross’s even more problematic “U.O.E.N.O” verse).  But amid all this cynicism, there’s Great Good Ok Fine, an indie-R&B outfit that’s less interested in spending hours in a strip club getting high than it is using that time to find a way to make the strippers fall in love with them.  On their first single, “You’re the Only One for Me”, the Brooklyn natives re-appropriate their scene’s violent language to make saccharine pop you can recover to.  “Hit ’em with a little bit of crazy/Hit ’em with a little bit of love.”  I hope they send Abel a copy of this one.

Listen below:

Day 168: A Long Stream of Memory About Falling Back in Love With Music

I remember the first time I heard The Avett Brothers’ “I and Love and You.”  I was driving with my uncle, not sure where we were going, but it’s more than likely we were going home.  I don’t think I needed to tell you that; there’s no reason to romanticize something as fundamental as direction.  After all, this is my memory, so why should you care where I was?

But I do remember the song and every step it took, that piano sitting beside Scott Avett in a way no person ever could, as both confidant and accomplice.  The song begins with directions, “Load the car and write the note/Grab your bag and grab your coat/Tell the ones that need to know/’We are headed North’”.  These words sway you, and if Scott appeared next to us on that night, I’m pretty sure we might’ve listened, not so much to escape anything, but more to see where he was headed.  He sounded like he had somewhere to be, things to change.  He was dynamic, adrift, and vaguely angry.  In other words, he was a teenager.  And so was I.

Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in/Are you aware the shape I’m in?  I’m not exactly sure how much time I’d spent in Brooklyn before I heard that song, but I’m certain that it wasn’t enough to decide I wanted to live there.  Only I did decide, because Scott Avett’s Brooklyn wasn’t a place.  He wouldn’t have pointed to a map if you asked him where it was.  I’ve been back to the real Brooklyn since, and I still like Scott’s version more, even though I’ve also never spent any quality time there and, a point that’s probably more telling, I’ve also never met Scott Avett.

To be honest, I knew very little about the dude; I still don’t.  I know he paints and that he once tried to personify Love and Hate, but I’m pretty unsure about his personal narrative.  I have no idea if “I and Love and You” is about him or about his parents or about characters in a book he read while stranded on a boat.  What I’m saying is that I don’t know his legend in the way people know Justin Vernon’s or Katie Crutchfield’s, so that first time I heard it, “I and Love and You” built up an original legend in my head, even if it wasn’t Scott’s.

I’m not even sure that legend was mine, but let me get there.

When at first I learned to speak/I used all my words to fight.  There’s so much to that line, so much that could speak to my 18 year-old-self, that would tell it not to write angry, or at least not to write angry all the time, and not to fight against everything that pulls, that some of that stuff is good.  I wasn’t a dick when I was 18, but I also could have definitely had more friends.  It’s such a waste of time.

And the piano is still there.  It’s constant, and I’ll always have it.  You stay close to those types of things, you think about them after the tide changes and you’re getting dragged out to sea, you start to think they will remember you.

Three words that became hard to say/I and love and you/What you were then I am today/Look at the things I do.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget the conversation that came after those lyrics.  I think about it every time I hear the song.  It’s a part of the legend.  My uncle asks me, “What do you think he’s singing about there?”, rewinding the CD.

“When?”

“Here.”  He plays it again, What you were then I am today/Look at the things I do.  I’m still frozen by the piano, there’s no way I have an answer for him, especially since I know he’s already got one, and it’s probably really close to him, because this song obviously means something to people.

“I’m not sure.”  I don’t think this was a lie.  I still think I was being honest.  That fucking piano.

“I think he’s talking about his dad, that his dad was an alcoholic, and he’s one now.  I think that’s what he’s trying to leave.”  The highway sets the traveler’s stage/All exits look the same.

I’m not sure if he’s right, and I’m actively avoiding finding out.  Even if I met Scott Avett, even if I interviewed him, I’d never ask him what that lyric meant or what that song was about.  I’m not interested in the band’s version anymore.  I’m not even sure hearing it would make a difference.  I’m fairly certain that there isn’t a single version of “I and Love and You” that won’t take me back to my uncle’s car, to that drive home, to his relation of meaning, his lucidity.  And I know he used “leave” and not “run away”.  I remember it because it was memorable, that distinction.  He didn’t have the same fears as Scott Avett, but I could tell that there was a time when he did.  I don’t think I ever would have learned that if it hadn’t been for that song, if it hadn’t come on during our drive home.

Do you think Scott Avett thinks about the song that much?

But there’s a reason for this story, an inciting incident, a motivation for writing about it right now, and it has something to do with The Avett Brothers’ new album and everything to do with the vacuousness of music criticism.  Yesterday The Avett Brothers released Magpie and the Dandelion, a new LP that hasn’t been met with nearly as much fanfare as The Carpenter, which was their follow up to I and Love and You.  The album opens with “Open Ended Life”, a song that preaches constant change as a source of happiness but paints by numbers when it comes to execution.  Never before have The Avett Brothers been so far detached from their own music, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

After The Carpenter proved a mostly failed attempt by the band to make a “death album”, The Avett’s turned over a new record quickly, possibly to cover up their tracks from the last one.  Magpie is noticeably more “fun-folk” than The Carpenter, but it refuses to surrender to the loud, reckless absurdity that made “Slight Figure of Speech” worth revisiting.  In other words, it’s far too quiet.  It even starts to sound like the soundtrack to a shitty romantic comedy after a while, like it was meant to be played over images of John Krasinski and Hilary Swank holding hands on a Ferris wheel.

But none of this is a bad thing because this album is going to mean something to someone.  I’m pretty sure of this.  In fact, I know this, and I know it because I’ve had people tell me I shouldn’t care about I and Love and You, that it’s kitsch, that it’s a minor Avett work, and I still do care about it, very much so.  It’s probably one of my favorite albums of the past five years, and that placement has very little to do with its artistic merit.  I could probably write 5,000 words on it and still feel unsatisfied but wouldn’t be able to muster nearly that many if you asked me to write about The King is Dead, an album that would probably find itself on that same list.  It just never grew into a part of my life in the same way I and Love and You did.  It’s not part of my story.  You don’t have to listen to The King is Dead to relate to me, but you don’t stand a chance if you haven’t heard I and Love and You.  It’s not that I’m any more complex than anyone else you might run into on the street; it’s just that I care far too much about something that other people spend 0% of their lifetime with.

And I’m starting to think it’s wrong to care.  Well, not wrong, but just incorrect, that to care is to drown out your own voice with enthusiasm.

I mean look at Spin.  They have a section labeled Worst New Music, and one of my favorite records from last year, The Gaslight Anthem’s Handwritten, was put under that banner.  And man did I care about that album.  I still have it in my car.  And it’ll stay there until I get a new car, then it will move with me.  It’s like an air freshener I sing along with when I’m struggling to stay awake.  But can I care about that record?  Does feeling the same way about “Mae” as my dad feels about Das Boot amount to anything?  Is there anywhere to just write about how the music makes you fucking feel?  Not in, like, an abstract way, but in self-serious discourse.  If I wrote that the guitars on “Mae” sound like horns, that they helped me find a new entry point to listen to jazz, would it be worth reading?

Look at Pitchfork.  They gave that first Airborne Toxic Even album a 1.5.  A 1.5!!  Is that even on their scale?  It can’t be.  You should get a 3.0 for being able to play four chords.  But a 1.5?  Because it wasn’t as good as Arcade Fire’s album?  Because Ian Cohen wanted some guy who read a lot of Don DeLillo to be more like Win Butler, the good son of indie-rock?  Why even write about the album?  Why not just ignore it?  It wasn’t a great album, but it was certainly enjoyable.  It definitely didn’t earn that rating.  Do you think he even listened to “Missy”?  Or “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”?  Those were solid songs, right?  Why did he come off so angry?

Remember this summer when Lou Reed wrote that review of Kanye West’s Yeezus?  How genuinely excited he was about it?  How he looked at Kanye’s “crack the pavement” approach and gushed like a sixth grader meeting Selena Gomez?  I don’t think I’ve enjoyed reading anything written about music as much as I did reading that, and it was because of his excitement, the way you could feel how he felt at every second of listening, how his excitement got you excited, how it made you go back and listen to the record, to take a new perspective.  I remember how much I loved music that day, how I remembered how to love music.  I also remember thinking that this is how we should write about music, that we should present perspective rather than definitive opinion.

Back on that night when I first heard “I and Love and You”, after my uncle dropped me off at home, I listened to another song that I’d given an original story to, NOFX’s “Linoleum”.

Possesions never meant anything to me/I’m not crazy.  I’ve always loved that first line.  It starts off the record and sets such a fucking nihilistic precedent.  It’s the best characterization of punk rock I’ve ever heard, and it’s probably the best lyric of all time.  I’m sure you don’t agree, but, to be honest, right now, I don’t give a fuck.

Day 167: Social D. Covers CCR

I don’t care that it was recorded for a movie (questionably) named Free Birds or that the song will be part of a movie that’s just riding the coattails (tail feathers?) of the Angry Birds phenomenon that started three years ago but your mom just sent you an e-mail yesterday asking how to download it.  I don’t care about any of it besides the fact that it happened.  Context doesn’t matter.  Mike Ness recorded “Up Around the Bend” and then released it to us.

And it sounds great.  Wow, does it sound great.  That bright, sunny, southern riff being dragged through the California punk (drug) scene?  You can barely make it out underneath all the calcified feedback, the smoke clogging up the bar.  Remember when Jack White was the only one allowed to record covers this good?  Yeah, me neither.

You can listen to the cover over at Rolling Stone.

 

Day 166: Sigma

A new era of SNL is here.  And it’s glorious.

Day 165: Dave Hause’s Devour and the Fall of the Blue-Collar Musician

What kind of lifestyle is Grizzly Bear living?  If their variety of indie-psychedelia headlining isn’t one-hundred percent sustainable, then what chance does, say, Dave Hause have?  Hause is a Philly punk vet whose new solo record, the road-tested Devour, comes out tomorrow on Rise Records.  He also may soon be forced from his songwriting gig for good, pending the record’s success, because making genuinely exciting music just isn’t a sustainable employment option anymore.  It’s starting to become troublingly clear that there’s very little room left for over-qualified, blue-collar singer-songwriters to carve out their own niche in the crowded landscape surrounding the rusted, decaying machinery of the music industry’s hit factory.  There’s simply not enough work to go around.  What kind of lifestyle is Grizzly Bear living?

It’s this shortage, this “endangered” tag affixed to the blue-collar musician, that gives Hause’s Devour its less than stable nuclear reactor.  He’s singing for his life, and you can feel it.  It’s a deeply visceral record, marked by Hause’s regret but even more so by his action.  On his debut, the no less impressive, if not as prescient, Resolutions, Hause preached patience, believing everything would eventually fall into place while clinging to the mantra, “Only time will tell”, for reassurance.  With Devour, he’s pawned his watch for one of Springsteen’s suicide machines, but it’s impossible to listen to these recession-era anthems without concurrently imagining Hause signing up for unemployment.  It takes Devour about a minute and ten seconds to announce itself as the most important record of 2013, and it does so with the lyric, “I promised that this wouldn’t happen to me.”  Right there you start to trust his voice, believe in his crisis of faith, and realize that Hause didn’t write a rock record.  He wrote a requiem.

On my first ten or so trips through Devour’s depressed tracklist, I couldn’t help but think about Haim’s Days Are Gone, the record most trend gazers will tell you is the best of the year.  I’m not here to disagree with them.  Days is a tremendous record, as intricate as it is breezy.  It’s the kind of indie-pop music scholars go all Pavlov’s dog over, sweeping together a list of influences scattered across hundreds of Pandora stations.  Days makes you believe that all music is somehow connected, that we all are probably connected, and that there might just be a point to all this deliberate noise.  It also makes you feel very little else.  Turns out the byproduct of all that planning, all that precision, is the filtering out of any trace of humanity.  This makes Days play a lot like the Breaking Bad finale, satisfying going down, then causing some stomach pains when you let it sit.

Devour works in direct opposition to Days Are Gone.  It’s not as clever with execution, but it can’t help but make you feel something, make you choke up to the point of worrying about where your next breath is coming from.  Songs like “Damascus” and “We Could Be Kings” bring a rare form of anxiety to the surface, the same kind of desperation that might get you kicked out of a 7/11.  This type of experience can’t be measured in the same way Haim’s can be.  You can’t possibly know all of Hause’s references, and I’m not sure there’s an adequate phrase that can describe the personal anguish rearing its head on “Autism Vaccine Blues”.  Days is music as science.  Devour is music as survival.

I’m ready to accept that Dave Hause will probably never be referred to as a “rock star”, but why should he be?  Devour isn’t a rock album; it’s the next great American novel.

Day 164: It’s Time to Face the Fact that Miley Cyrus Wrote (Recorded) a Good Song

So Miley didn’t write “Wrecking Ball”.  I know that, you (probably) know that, and Juicy J definitely knows that.  But you know who did (co-)write it?  Dr. Luke.  And do you know what else Dr. Luke (co-)wrote?  That’s right, he (co-)wrote “Since U Been Gone”.  Remember that genre-smashing, generation-defying anthem?  Remember how it convinced you that Kelly Clarkson had Britney power with none of the weird, swollen childhood baggage weighing her down?  Well those days are behind us, and all we have to show for them is Miley and her sledgehammer.

But, for all the hype, I’m not convinced that’s such a bad thing*.  For one, “Wrecking Ball” is a good song.  I think it might even be a very good song.  I even tweeted this admission:

Take away the video (maybe**), and I’m willing to argue it’s one of the best pop songs of the year.  Sure, it’s got the depth and nuance of a cinder block, but isn’t that why they called it “Wrecking Ball” in the first place?  It doesn’t matter if the song swings blindly because it’ll still cause a fuck ton of destruction.  Also, those ping-ponging synths are at just the right frequency, and the EDM chorus gives us the hollowest bass drop imaginable; it’s what that thing young people confuse for love might sound like if you shot it into space.

And if you’re still not buying any of this, check out indie-pop darlings HAIM covering “Wrecking Ball”.  They bring the song crashing back down to earth, and despite sounding great, it just doesn’t work.  They sound too put together, too in control of the world around them.  They’re far more deserving than Miley but decided to show up to a gunfight with a scalpel.  It turns out Miley was the only one who knew to pack a bazooka.

*I’m also not convinced it’s a good thing.  I’ve already written on her troubling practice of cultural cribbing, but “Wrecking Ball” is a good example of how she could let that part of her celebrity go.  It did get some good, and some important, discussions going, but I’m not convinced that the gleeful objectification of the bodies of black women is the best entry point for a national discussion on race.

**Hell, I’ll even argue for the video, not as one of the best of the year, but as something worth just a little bit of critical weight.  There’s something to be said about that kind of commitment to a vision of dystopian construction sex fantasies.  If we keep putting so much of our energy and focus into building things higher and higher, won’t we eventually need to repay the tools that tear it all down and free us from our own vertical greed?  (I never said it was a strong argument.  I just said it was an argument.)