Thurston Moore delivers a moment

One of my favorite records from 2010 is The Radio Dept’s Clinging to a Scheme. Even thought the Swedish indie band has been around since 2003, that record was my intro to them (they subsequently released a singles collection last year that’s provides a nice overview). Anyway, there’s this great sample playing at the beginning of track 2 of Clinging to a Scheme [see below] while the band plays the harpsichordy intro. It’s the voice of a serious-sounding, academic who says, “People see rock-and-roll as youth culture and when youth culture becomes monopolized by big business what are the youth to do?  Do you have any idea? I think we should destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture.” Cue poppy, jiggling guitar.

It’s not quite as powerful as the Iggy Pop sample at the beginning of Mogwai’s “Punk Rock.” but I always got behind it and figured it serious.

So the other night I’m watching 1991: The Year Punk Broke, which is a real trip down memory lane. The last time I saw it, it was played on an 1980 RCA VHS machine, I was just entering high school, couldn’t drive, and imagine I was scheming for a way to get my parents to drive me to Toronto to catch Lollapalooza 1993. All could recall from it is that there’s tons of raw footage of mostly Sonic Youth and Nirvana (and occasionally Dinosaur Jr. and other sludgy grunge acts) playing and goofing during an early 90s tour of Europe. Nirvana was about to release Nevermind and Sonic Youth was between Goo and Dirty (judging from the songs played on film, it looks like they barely started writing Dirty if they started it at all). Anyway, relatively early in the film there are plenty of random shots of Thurston Moore yelling into the mic, goofing around on the streets of Ireland or Germany, and apparently riffing on Madonna’s tour documentary, Truth or Dare.  And this happens:

The sample! It was fucking Thurston Moore? Although he criticizes record companies at the end of the clip (omitted from the Radio Dept song), SY had just released Goo on Geffen (now owned by Universal Music) a year earlier and would go on to release many more (along with labelmates, Nirvana).

I had moments like these throughout my listening life, usually when I listened to hip-hop. It would start with something from NWA, and then years later I’d be listening to Gang Starr or James Brown or the Beasties and have that moment of realization of the original source. While not entirely profound, the moment reminds me of how there is still an aura, even in a copy. It also reminds me that context is essential to meaning. Tracing, tracking a sample’s ecology raises questions, too. Is Moore just fucking around? Is he serious? Can it be both? No doubt folks who know SY’s history better than me will have interpretations here, but I thought about that moment and wondered if they happen more frequently in a remix culture, or since originality is always suspect, those moments have always happened, just differently.

Top 5 Records of 2011

I don’t have much time to seek new stuff out so I’m the first to admit that I rely on friends and Pitchforks for music recs. That said, I did spin some records more than others this year so here’s a list.

Bill Callahan, one bad MF.

1. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse. I’ve been a fan of Smog since my best friend dubbed me a copy of Julius Caesar in 11th grade, so speaking as a 15-year+ fan, I have to say — without qualification — that this is Callahan’s best yet. You’ve seen the video for “America,” haven’t you?

2. Bon Iver – s/t . While I find Justin Vernon’s stardom ethos absolutely nauseating (Best Buy exclusive releases, town parades and all that bullshit) and supposed bravado of “Beth/Rest” still puzzles me, it’s hard to deny the reach of this record. I can’t get enough of the other nine tracks.

3. Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972. Perhaps the only ambient record that will ever make a year end top 5 in my lifetime. Thanks, Tim, for helping me through the reading load of my first semester of the grad grind. Drop that piano, IHML.

4. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer. Better than anything the FF’s ever put out. Ditch the bro, sis. “My Mistakes” is/was pure summer gold.

5. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo. An trashy, emotional ride from a songwriter who can somehow make the last scene in S2 of Eastbound and Down feel genuinely romantic.

Others: Atlas Sound – Parallax, PJ Harvey – Let England Shake, Wye Oak – Civilian, Why the Wires – Telegraph Flats, Roger Bryan and the Orphans – 37, Races – Big Broom EP, Widowspeak – s/t

Belfer Audio Archive Tour

On Tuesday I had an opportunity to tour SU’s Belfer Audio Archive, the 4th largest sound archive in the country. It recently doubled in size in 2008 when Morton Savada, the owner of NYC’s Records Revisited donated more than 200,000 78s, making it the 2nd largest collection of 78s in the the US (second only to the Library of Congress). But Belfer also has a large collection of cylinders (22,000, in fact), some of which have already been digitized and made publicly available within their searchable and browseable digital library.

The studio for digitizing the archive

I was invited in because of a possible collaboration with Soundbeat, the Archive’s snappy audio blog that produces a daily podcast on one recording from the archive per day. Jim, Soundbeat’s thoughtful producer, has been working with instructors at SU to have their students write scripts for various episodes. Since each episode is only 90 seconds, the scripts are quite short (125 words) and tell a specific story. And since the episodes require research — both primary and secondary — the project would be a natural fit with a composition class.

A phonograph cylinder

Since I’m gunning for a WRT 205 section this spring, it looks like I might try to match up the goals of that critical research writing course with a collaboration with Soundbeat. What I’m trying to sort through first are issues with invention and exigence. How would a student choose a recording they are genuinely interested in? How would that recording and the script fit into a larger unit of inquiry? Likewise, what should the writing process look like for such a short piece? What research methods will be necessary in order for my students to write informed pieces that tell the right story? How will I balance the project alongside the other WRT 205 outcomes?

Right now I’m trying to think about how these recordings might work in a course more broadly focused on remix culture, which is necessarily countercultural and will get the class thinking about intersections of discourses from agents and groups who have traditionally been silenced (i.e. DJs in the Bronx). I also like this idea because Belfer has some obvious restraints to making their recordings publicly available (restraints that will affect our choices for Soundbeat) and so it will open up conversations about copyright, IP law, creative commons, artistic license and access. For instance, although Belfer owns half a million recordings, only 1,600 cylinder recordings are currently available for download from the site. They will, of course, digitize more and the public can get streaming copies of the other copyrighted recordings upon request, but they have to submit said request and wait their turn in the queue, which can take weeks or even months.

But I’m also interested in the idea of having students work backward from a contemporary point they’re interested in and finish the course having written a very lean script for Soundbeat (as opposed to a 15-page paper). When I think of work in our field, like Jeff Rice‘s “The 1963 Hop-Hop Machine,” I think students will invent and find good work through juxtaposition, which is another value of remix culture.

In any case, if folks who are reading this have other ideas, I welcome them in the comments.

Ithaca Weekend

We traveled to Ithaca this weekend to spend some rare time with our good friends Haley and Kevin. The four of us are always super busy so we actually set time aside (i.e. put it on the calendar) to hang for not one, but two nights. We could not have picked a better weekend weather wise and we managed to fit a bunch of outdoor time in, including a long walk up to the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell (which I had never been to before). If you haven’t been, I recommend a visit soon since one of their current exhibitions, Bursts of Light and Rifts of Darkness, features a few choice selections from the founding artists of Abstract Expressionism, namely Still, De Kooning, Rothko, Gottlieb, and Gorky (sorry, no Pollock). The exhibition only features five, mostly small selections from a minor collection (Cornell alum Peter Meinig), but AE generally holds a special place in my heart since it was the first phenomenon I genuinely felt worth studying in school. In fact, my first advanced composition (that I did well on, anyway) was a research paper on the movement for an English elective I took senior year of high school (printed on dot matrix, mind you). Mark Rothko in particular still remains my favorite painter of all time (tough his piece in this collection is a surrealist sketch from 1945 — before his color field paintings, which I particularly love).

It’s probably a stretch to say if it wasn’t for AE, I woud not be where I am now, but I certainly felt something in viewing these five pieces — a feeling I usually only feel at the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo. Though I didn’t get to enjoy it too much since I had to be mindful of a certain hyperactive 2yo who somehow managed to escape me long enough to climb up the leg of a Giacometti sculpture. Thankfully the security at Johnson was friendly, even warning us about some of the more creepy video installations on the 3rd floor. Once we went through the three to four floors of art, we hit the elevator to the 5th floor which features a panoramic view of Ithaca set next to various pieces of Asian art.

After our trip to the gallery, Haley made some amazing bim bam bap and I helped Kevin and the band Why the Wires load in at the new “Space at GreenStar” venue by the Cayuga Lake inlet. Normally I wouldn’t be too jazzed about a 4-band show, but I had already peeped the internets for samples of the two local openers, Time Being and BEES///, and was particularly excited to see the headliner, Pterodactyl, since I had heard some of their stuff of Jagjaguwar, including their outstanding single, “Nerds,” from the about-to-be released record, Spills Out. All the bands were great, but this was Why the Wires’s best show yet. They played all new stuff and sounded tighter than ever. If you live in upstate NY, you have ample opportunity to check them out. [I got to take a bunch of shots with my SLR, too, which you can see more of on my Flickr site.] After a Shortstop sub and some clock turning, we hit the hay late on Saturday.

We left early on Sunday; the ladies made a shitload of Concord grape jam, which I plan to enjoy thoroughly through next fall. All in all it was one of those necessary weekends where we were able to get recharged and reinspired, even though it demands an uphill climb with the workload this week.

Tunes: Fennesz and Tim Hecker

Up until recently I’ve avoided putting any music on my iPad, thinking of it as more a reading device than anything else. But I’m doing nearly all of my reading/skimming/annotating on that device and have occasionally needed to either drown out the noises around me or to simply make reading more of an event.

But this means reaching for music in my library that will swallow me whole and not get in the way, if you will. I lament having less summerpop bouncing around, of course, but it’s actually a refreshing change of pace and leaves me hungry for the more experimental, ambient stuff on labels I don’t usually follow, like Kranky. I’ve been getting into the usual suspects (Stars of the Lid, Dirty Three, and Labradford), but also two dudes in particular who I know very little about: Fennesz and Tim Hecker. Both have pretty deep catalogues.

Fennesz is actually Christian Fennesz, an Austrian electro-guitarist who offers up both the guitar and synth/computer as textures. I’ve been digging 2008’s Black Sea; that record, interestingly, has songs that feel like they have rhythm (which you can see in this video of him performing). The push that comes with that helps when the reading load becomes a slog.

Tim Hecker has been around for a long time (formerly as laptop-techno guru, Jetone), but I’ve only gotten into his most recent record, Ravedeath, 1972. I love the fuzzy glitch of the synth in this track, “The Piano Drop,” but the whole album is great in that its noise swells and disappears; and when the occasional naked piano (or something) pokes right through the wall of noise, it’s gold.

Buffalo Fireworks

After reading my pals’ inspired x-country bike blog this week (check it), I’m itching to hit the road again. I’ll be off to Montana a week from Tuesday, but before I do that all three of us are heading to Buffalo this weekend for my Aunt Barb’s annual Fourth Of July party. It’ll be a bit of a reunion: my parents flew in from FL last night, my cousin and her partner are driving from the ADKs, and of course we’ll catch up with some resident friends. For being only 2-3 hours away, we just don’t make it to my hometown enough and so a trip to Buffalo almost feels like a trip to Canada or FL.

Excited to see people, for sure, but also for live music. Friday night the ‘rents are watching AM so E and I can catch Centro-matic (the new album absolutely rules), Sarah Jaffe, and Roger Bryan and the Orphans at the Mohawk. I’m pumped about all three of these bands and a rare night out — and in Buffalo to boot. While on the road, I’m going to practice mobile (micro?) blogging with WordPress’s iOS app so bear with me.

Tunes: Chantels, Sam Cooke, Neil Diamond, Kris Kristofferson

Been into a weird retro-y mood this last week with my music, seeking out and listening to old soul and country from from the 50s (Chantels) and 60s (Cooke, Diamond and Kristofferson), mostly via reading lists on Metacritic and

Cover (The Best of the Chantels [Rhino]:The Chantels)The Chantels were one of the first all-black girl groups and sang vocal harmonies/doo wop. Their biggest hit, “Maybe,” peaked at #15 on Billboard in 1957 (though they had been together for 7 years by that point). It’s a sweet little number that makes we watch to watch Blue Velvet again.

I’ve been into Sam Cooke for a few years, mostly spinning thefew records I have of his that I have at home. The record I’ve been getting into this week, however, is his best known album, 1963’s Night Beat. It starts with the happiest version of “Nobody Knows” on record, and carries through with other blues standards.

So pleading really ignorant here, but I had no idea Neil Diamond was something beyond a jazz singer, whose choruses were only sung by drunk karaokers and wedding parties. So imagine my shock discovering Bang Years, a recent collection that chronicles his early days. Take this tune for instance.

pilgrim06360eI’m still exploring Kris Kristofferson and am not sure where I stand. My only experience with him — before picking up  s/t this week — comes from three funny but separate incidents: (1) my sister witnessing my dad’s drunk friend singing “Me and Bobby McGee” one night at karaoke bar in 1987, (2) seeing a member of Hot Hot Heat wear a hilarious shirt that read “Kris Fucking Kristofferson!” and (3) a lyric on the new Bill Callahan record (“Captain Kristofferson!”). But I do love this line from the chorus from “Me and Bobby McGee”: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”