moments before the wind.

April 30, 2007

by the stars of the southern hemisphere

The Pop Conference has this way of subsiding but never really ending, because all of a sudden I start to see everything as this reflection of some kind of culture war being played out in the musical arena.

Anyways, I have a big list of other blogs from EMP speakers. It’s almost done, and I think close to comprehensive, so stay tuned for that. I just need a little more motivation to sit down and finish it.

For now, something different. I’m reviewing this book called Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, who is this classic American songwriter that I’ve never heard of before who seems to have worked with anyone important who ever existed(Elvis, Billie, B.B., Dylan…). More on that in the actual review when it comes out at

What I am responding to most immediately has nothing to do with the book or the story of this particular guy’s life. It’s the format of the book. The litany of people, dinners, run-ins, venues, the teeming masses of unheard of musicians that form this amoeba-like body of artists and businesspeople what somehow every now and then spits out music that we’ve grown to know and love. It’s just an endless catalog of conversations and half-remembered, half-reconstructed memories. Doesn’t matter who the book is about. I think about Wall of Pain, the Phil Spector bio, or David Hadju’s one about the burgeoning 60’s folk scene, Dylan/Baez/Farina-style. It’s like there is no way to expose the complex network of assoications that add up to a career, so all there is to do is make these lists.

And then we read the lists. Abandoning all expectation of narrative for the moments where we come upon certain obscure names, have a private moment of recognition at this odd factoid of history revealed. It’s sort of like scanning the wedding announcements in the paper and, like I do every few weeks, recognizing someone from high school or somewhere else.

And then the names all start to overlap. They’re all in each other’s biographies, all the same cast of characters. It’s like reading the same story over and over again, told from a slightly different angle.

How else can you write a book about such a big thing? I think about what Rushdie wrote in Midnight’s Children: “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.” True. House of Leaves is also like that, and it’s not a list. Biographers aren’t novelists, I get that…but still…show me a music biography that goes beyond. Please.


April 23, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #16 – End Bits

One thing that I continually find entertaning is the feedback loop at the conference, presenters quoting writers to help support their point, and those writers are literally sitting in the audience listening to their own words spoken back to them. This kind of validation (or cancellation?) is a kind of black hole, a weird moment in time when the reasoning behind an argument starts to sound circular. For some reason the fact that the original writer is in the room listening sort of serves to render the intellectual capacity of the argument null and void. Like anything that is circular, you have to wonder whether it’s useful to end up where you started. Of course it can be. And of course it can’t be.


There seemed to be an exceptional amount of political commentaries built into the arguments I saw. The theme of the conference, “Waking Up From History,” propelled many writers to arrive at the concusion that we should actually wake up TO history, to learn from history, and to draw conclusions between the cultural sphere that our work covers and the political sphere of which we are citizens.

Some examples:

-Robert Bennett on the Jazz Diplomacy program and the things we should learn from it.
-Scott Nelson’s timely mention of “abortive gun policies” in the paper about John Henry’s exhumation – I’m not sure how he managed to reference the VA. Tech shootings in that conversation but at the time it made perfect sense.
-Brendan Greaves’ talk of Terry Allen’s border politics and the ways in which the Texas/Mexico border is treated by the government versus the inhabitants. 
-There was also an entire panel about New Orleans, as well as a smattering of other related papers throughout the weekend, all of which contained a fervent expression of the power of music and solidarity and the essential character of the city.

In general, as there seems to be in more and more things these days, there was a real sense of urgency that was more palpable than in previous conferences. It may have been the effect of the theme, but in general people’s research was very much rooted in the grim realities of life and music’s ability to help maintain and even create hope where all seems quite hopeless.

EMP Pop Conference #11 – County Lines

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, business, country, folk, music, producers, recording, writing — alimarcus @ 11:28 am

A recurrent topic at the conference is the black reclamation of a southern identity, namely, southern hip hop. Countless papers brought this up in conversations about racial politics and pop culture, which makes sense due to the huge and growing popularity of african-american musicians re-forging their southern roots and identities.

To talk about Leadbelly here would be going in the wrong direction, because the idea is that this new generation of hip hop is fueled by a kind of empowerment and self-conscious purpose. But to talk about Cowboy Troy might be entirely appropriate? Or maybe just bizarre. Jon Caramanica was so giddy to get to be talking about Cowboy Troy, I can only imagine the sorts of things that might be going on at Vibe Magazine.

But I think there is something else to this element of absurdity. Charles Hughes gave a fantastic presentation on the love triangle of Nashville, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals – namely, the particular symbiosis of country and soul (and disco?), black and white, that largely determined the mainstream sounds of both genres in the 70’s. And when someone asked him what contemporary artists could be compared to the genre benders Billy Sherrill, George Jones, Ray Charles, etc etc…he said Bubba Sparxx’s album Deliverance. Now that to me is absurd. Not that Hughes is wrong, but that I never took Sparxxx seriously – I think one too many frat parties may have tipped the scales for me in that respect (one?! okay, maybe 20). And then Hughes himself addressed this, as if he’d read my mind, bringing up artists like Solomon Burke and Allen Toussaint, lamenting that “they’re all so damn serious.”

Lightbulb! I get the “too damn serious” comment a LOT, so I get what he means here, though I may be on the other side of the coin. Bubba Sparxxx? Definitely not. Fans of Bubba Sparxxx too – POPISTS! Which is the whole reason why we’re at the Pop Conference in the first place.

We all draw our own lines between what’s pop and what’s serious. Different for every person. This makes me think of a little tibit that Meghan Askins taught us yesterday, that Nevada County, CA, drew their county lines in the shape of a pistol aimed at Nevada State, angry for stealing their name. The way that we all draw our lines tends to have a kind of larger metaphysical purpose as well, aimed with a certain discourse in our sights.

April 20, 2007

i heard there was a major chord – introduction

Ahhhhhhh. So nice to be back. The continual decline of the EMP’s institutional gravitas only makes this conference all the more sweeter. Oh, how imminent demise doth make the heart grow!

But in the lovely Seattle springtime, everything feels like a rebirth, and so this weekend we embark on the eternal journey of speculation and debate, insight and confusion. Does this stuff matter to anyone else? If it doesn’t, does that matter? And if it does, then what are we doing here?

We are analysts, we are critics, we are artists: I cannot think of a more potent combination of inspired and cynical people who must against all odds maintain faith in this crazy work we do. For me, the conference feels like a yearly pep rally. So lets get to it. Thanks for reading!

February 10, 2007

fifteen miles on the erie canal

On an article in today’s NYT:

A woman curates a show called “Not For Sale,” in which artists are showing pieces that are not for sale. Very interesting things, to read about the various reasons artists hold on to or don’t hold on to things. The conclusion of the article:

“I’m not insisting that all these artists are in any way pure, whatever that is,” she said. “I just want to show people art that can be made and exist apart from the market for reasons that I hope still exist, even in this kind of market.”

But then, expressing her allegiance with the Ray Johnsons of the world and unable to stay completely away from the pulpit, she thumped the table with her hand. “We are talking about religion here, aren’t we?” she said, smiling fiercely. “We’re talking about God.”

A curious mix of righteousness and independence. It seems very clear that this woman knows exactly what she thinks, and while she is not going to force it on anyone else, she is going to make it very clear, and leave the choice up to the individual.

This sounds a little bit familiar. How ’bout here:

Turtle Rock is not a record label that is trying to compete with – or even criticize – the practices of other record labels, major or independent. It is simply going its own way.

Nevertheless, the materialism of our culture has become an ecstatic caricature of itself, unabashedly reveling in its own greed.

The same sort of back and forth coming from me. And Turtle Rock practices are shifting a little bit, with a new record out that actually costs money, people are asking questions. But people are also buying, so it can’t be that horrible. Things like integrity or value can’t truly be measured but they can be felt. So as long as we are still paying attention to that, then things should be OK.

Did I mention the record is for sale?

Did I mention that the website is rebuilt?

Did I mention that half of the album is still completely free?

December 31, 2006

james, do you like your life?

Filed under: architecture, business, country, music, producers, recording, writing — alimarcus @ 10:27 am

From today’s NYT: 

The subtlest reason that pop music is so flavorful to our brains is that it relies so strongly on timbre. Timbre is a peculiar blend of tones in any sound; it is why a tuba sounds so different from a flute even when they are playing the same melody in the same key. Popular performers or groups, Dr. Levitin argued, are pleasing not because of any particular virtuosity, but because they create an overall timbre that remains consistent from song to song. That quality explains why, for example, I could identify even a single note of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”

“Nobody else’s piano sounds quite like that,” he said, referring to Mr. John. “Pop musicians compose with timbre. Pitch and harmony are becoming less important.”

Dr. Levitin dragged me over to a lab computer to show me what he was talking about. “Listen to this,” he said, and played an MP3. It was pretty awful: a poorly recorded, nasal-sounding British band performing, for some reason, a Spanish-themed ballad.

Dr. Levitin grinned. “That,” he said, “is the original demo tape of the Beatles. It was rejected by every record company. And you can see why. To you and me it sounds terrible. But George Martin heard this and thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can imagine a multibillion-dollar industry built on this.’

“Now that’s musical genius.”

I’m conflicted about this. First of all, a focus on timbre over the traditional pitch/harmony/melody stuff is smart, it avoids a knee-jerk reaction and makes you stop and think about what you’re really listening to. And in a lot of cases yes, I do think it’s more about the tone, the particular combination of sound rather than just what’s on one of the tracks. But this is such a biased opinion, coming from a guy who spent 15 years as a record producer. Of course he believes that it’s all in the mix. But I need to believe that there’s also something very fundamental in the song itself that makes some very deep imprints as well.

And secondly, this business about the Beatles’ demo tape. Again, with the producers taking credit for everything. I like what a lot of the information in the article says, but it just doesn’t make sense to me that the talent of a band is all of a sudden under the jurisdiction of producers who either make or break them. And thirdly that a multibillion dollar industry is the key legacy of the Beatles, the ultimate goal for musical genius. What?

November 19, 2006

it’s night time the whole world can see

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, country, folk, music, producers, recording, writing — alimarcus @ 6:16 pm

Making a mixtape is meditation. Who could be so lucky to have three hours to spend doing something like this? Maybe Turtle Rock should start distributing mixtapes. Here’s the Thanksgiving 2006 setlist:

The Eels – “It’s A Motherfucker” (being here without you)
David Gray – “December” (what happened to the time?)
Sheryl Crow – “Members Only” (all the politicians shake their asses)
Eric Clapton – “Running On Faith” (what else can a poor boy do?)
No Doubt – “In My Head” (only in my head)
R.E.M. – “Swan Swan Hummingbird” (hurrah we are all free now)
Tracy Chapman – “Gimme One Reason” (baby i got your number)
Elvis Costello – “Tramp The Dirt Down” (all of the glory and none of the shame)
Joni Mitchell – “California” (will you take me as i am?)
Lisa Loeb – “Dance With The Angels” (well then embroider me in gold)
Jonatha Brooke – “Sally” (i do believe you can save me)
Bob Dylan – “Song To Woody” (hey hey woody guthrie i wrote you a song)
The Nields – “Memory Leaves Town” (leaving memory)
Sarah Harmer – “Oleander” (i think you’d better)
Barenaked Ladies – “Break Your Heart” (you arrogant man)
Fiona Apple – “Red Red Red” (what’s coming is already on its way)
Counting Crows – “Long December” (and there’s reason to believe)
Dar Williams – “The Beauty Of The Rain” (is how it falls, how it falls, how it falls)

Happy Thanksgiving.

September 15, 2006

i think it’s in my friend

Filed under: architecture, music, producers, recording — alimarcus @ 12:39 pm

Someone last night made a comment about recording techniques that’s created an idea in my head that still lingers. We were discussing the creation of a sonic space, a sort of architectural discussion of sound – common studio talk. I mentioned that one of my favorite recordings I ever made was in an impromptu outdoor setting. Intended to sound low-fi and silly, it actually came out quite clearly, with the most natural sound. And so he says (paraphrased), “well, yeah, the best recording studio is out there” – gesturing out the window to Pine Street, a commercial center of our lovely Capitol Hill – “only most people don’t want to hear the other sounds. You could record in the woods, if you want silence…” and there my ears just stopped listening as I remembered that grove of trees near the summit of Mt. Si. Talk about acoustic space. The pine-needled floor absorbs all the peripheral sound you may possibly fear, and the openness of the air, due to trees spaced far apart from each other, is like an unobtrusive wind. The trees protect from the elements, keeping all the noisy, dirty stuff out, and they also keep a secluded isolated pocket of silence within. This, my friend, is the perfect recording studio.

Now, I’m not saying I’m going to hike to the top of Mt. Si with a laptop, microphones, stands, wires, not to mention a guitar and all the rest. (Though, what a project! How would there be power?) But I absolutely love the idea of turning a wood into a studio. No walls. Part of this is definitely a relentless attachment to Bridge to Terabithia, I know. But it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched, if I could find a closer wood (within reach of an extension cord). A whole new reason for living in the Pacific Northwest – the evergreens.

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