moments before the wind.

May 5, 2007

can still burn your fingers

Filed under: authenticity, country, folk, indie, live shows, music, news, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 8:00 am

Last night’s Elvis Costello show at the Sunset Tavern was a benefit for 826 Seattle, the quirky, fun, and incredibly dedicated tutoring center fronted by a Space Travel Supply Store.

Quirky, fun, and incredibly dedicated? Sounds like 826 has found their musical counterpart. I’m not sure if the idea for the benefit came from 826 or was a secondary decision, but there could not have been a better chosen figure for celebration in their presence. And I feel like I am qualified to say this because not only am I a huge Elvis fan but also I am an 826 volunteer.

Think about it this way. What would you expect the audience to look like at an 826 benefit? Bookish, plastic frames, slightly less casual clothes, clean-cut-yet-subtly-hip seriousness of people who appreciate serious art. Add a tie and there you have it – the audience you’d expect at an Elvis Costello tribute concert. A marriage made in heaven.

It was a packed house, sold out in under an hour. There were 15 bands, each doing one to three songs. Even the selection was hyper-indie selective, only rarely would a group allow the audience the pleasure of doing one of Elvis’s smash hits. Highlights:
-both versions of “Indoor Fireworks”
-“Living in Paradise” sung in octaves with an acoustic guitar
-“Miracle Man,” because it’s currently hanging on my wall also
-The intense wordiness that I hear as Costello’s magic touch, filtered through all these other bands…it was like American Idol, seeing how the various singers would attempt to do what seems to come so naturally to the writer. Some did a really awesome job. It reminds you od Elvis’s brilliance, because you don’t realize how complex the music is until you try and perform it yourself.
-This beautiful Gibson guitar that one of the performers used. I think it was a Hummingbird.

By the way, 826 Seattle is one of the best things. Period. If you don’t know much about it or what they do, please visit their site and check it out. Space travel is just the beginning. They are always, always looking for volunteers in one way or another, and I have never had a more rewarding experience. I was not asked to make this statement. It’s really true.

May 3, 2007

some day he will live to regret me

Filed under: folk, indie, music, recording, reviews, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 1:49 pm

Aimee Mann’s Bachelor No. 2 is playing at Victrola. I happened to be walking by and could not stop myself from coming in to listen to the rest of it. Whatta great record. I think it’s her best one. Perfect thing to hear on this sunny/windy/freezing in the cold Seattle spring day. WHen you can get sunburn and goosebumps at the same time.

Me and my friend Hanon have reconnected. Oh, it’s been so long, and such a joyous double return.

May 1, 2007

but i’m gonna stay

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, folk, live shows, music, news, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 9:51 pm

Here’s something cool. So last week I spent all this time at the EMP listening to lectures and pondering music, and this week I get to play my own music in the same space.

And I thought I was getting better at the whole world collision thing, but now they collide in the same space in the same fortnight. That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

Details:
Thursday, May 3
6:30PM
EMP SKY CHURCH, Seattle, WA
FREE

Not only is the show free, but the whole EMP and SFM are open to the public from 5-8PM. Also the Old Bay Warblers, my old-time outfit, will be making a brief appearance. Check it out!

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 www.rivetmagazine.org.

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.

Also.

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 #14 – Van the Man

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, country, distribution, folk, music, recording, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 1:51 pm

A note about a song. Charles Hughes said that “Dark End of the Street” (1967) should be America’s national anthem. I didn’t previously know the song, but the part of it he played was beautiful. It made me think of Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road,” released in 1979 on Into the Music, because of the obvious lyrical relationship.

Where writers Dan Penn and Chips Moman write:

I know time’s gonna take its toll
We have to pay for the love we stole
It’s a sin and we know it’s wrong
Oh, our love keeps going on strong
Steal away to the dark end of the street
You and me

Van says:

Little darlin, come with me
Wont you help me share my load
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road

In my mind, there’s no other possibility except that Van is responding to this hugely popular song of the previous decade. It’s just too explicit. I wonder what Hughes would say about the racial politics surrounding Van and his music, with the mixture of a serious anglo-saxon background and a decidedly soul, R&B musical influence. Maybe he would say that the exact kind of hybrid that Van exemplifies is a direct product of the mishmash love triangle in the south. See this for more on that.

EMP Pop Conference #7 – Too Much Analysis?

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, folk, live shows, music, recording, reviews, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 8:57 am

John Shaw has a really nice take on his experience at the conference this weekend. Mainly centered around Jonathan Lethem’s keynote, which I skipped, he repeatedly brings up something that I think about often, in music and also in life. “We should exult that such secrets live among us,” he writes, referring to the seemingly endless attempts my music writers to analyze, unpack, and deconstruct what exactly it is that makes this or that do a particular thing inside our bodies and minds.

A (perhaps the) central conflict in my professional life (see Quality) is between what I think as a critic and what I think as a musician. I am constantly looking to more experienced people in this situation for advice or for something that helps ease the tension, but more often than not, I have to make little decisions here and there choosing one over the other and weighing the results over time. But in general, I find that I am unable to truly separate. Either my writing about music becomes increasingly lyrical and personal, or my songs or promotional strategies have these highly analytical tics that come off as inappropriately intellectual in the wrong circumstances.

Bob Christgau would call me a bad critic. But would he also call me a bad songwriter? I don’t know.

At any write, Shaw thinks that “Maybe the ubiquity of music has masked its mystery, like a drug to which our tolerance has grown,” and I absolutely agree. I could go on forever about the ways in which recorded music has changed our relationship to music in general. In fact, I probably already have, somewhere on this blog, if you’re willing to search for something about mp3’s and albums and live performance.  

So it might be the hybrid nature of my music appreciation that both feels exactly what John is saying (exults, if you will), but also just as equally feels the necessity of critical analysis. It’s just as important. Living too much in one world or another would seem like missing out on some things.

Is this an extension of the wrap-up panel about Academia vs. Journalism?  If so, then Journalism all of a sudden just became the heart instead of the brains, as far as binaries are concerned. Interesting. More on this later.

April 20, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #2 – Hallelujah

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, distribution, folk, indie, music, recording, reviews, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 9:19 pm

I’m always a big fan of song analyses through cover versions. The psychology behind cover songs is so fascinating, so when the versions drastically change from version to version it’s like a cosmic game of Telephone. Cosmic in the Gram Parsons sense. (non sequiter: Can anybody tell me why 4 is cosmic?)

Michael Barthel’s chronology of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was entertaining and very much of-this-era, in the sense that his focus on the song was about where in TV and film the various versions have been licensed. The validation of the popularity of the song, and implicity, the meaning of the song, depended on the media outlets which employed it’s services. I would have appreciated a more poetic approach, really looking at the lyrics of each version, but I was satisifed with his witty, sarcastic and humorous approach.

The basic gist is that Cohen’s original recording is very different from the later, more popular covers. They are most likely based on a 1988 performance of Cohen’s, which John Cale covered, and the subsequently Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, and everybody else and their mother. Nobody that Barthel brought up has bothered to do a cover of the original version which is strikingly dissimilar to the 90’s, 00’s versions. Cohen’s original was wry, ironic, dour. The others are one-dimensionally sad, and Barthel illustrated this, what he called “emotional flatness,” by showing the repetetive overuse in shows like “The OC” and “Scrubs.” He clearly felt that the song, in it’s newer versions and particular placements, had been reduced to a cliche. His actual words were that the TV shows were, in effect, “reducing a song about the varieties of grace to a mere lament.”

A few things.

Did you know that it was John Cale who switched the word “broken” in for Cohen’s “lonely”? That’s my favorite part of the song. Interesting.

Barthel’s delivery was in the spirit of the absurd, mirrored in his opinions about the licensing choices as well, eliciting loud laughter when he said that the song makes “even the shallowest character seem tragic,” showing a picture of Shrek on the screen. I wish that he had gone beyond laughter, beyond mocking, and made a larger point about the song itself, about the versatility of Cohen as a writer, or the nature of the song that has allowed it to perpetuate such a strong lineage of associations. Because even if it has been reduced to a cliche, it’s still an extraordinary achievement, and is, few would disagree, an extraordinary song.

Speaking of cliches, Charlie Kronengold made a necessary point about cliches in his talk today as well. Through a series of examples of music I’ve never heard, he arrived at the truism that cliches are part of human nature, that they themselves are truisms. People should not be so negative about them.

Kronengold’s talk left me wondering about the cliches that enter the lexicon because of a popular song. He spoke of the other way around, the cliches pulled from life or experience that are in song, but I went off on a tangent in my head. Phrases like “knockin’ on heaven’s door,” “shelter from the storm,” “the times, they are a’changin’,” and any reference to some sort of knowledge or peace found in the blowing wind always, always make me think of Bob Dylan. And I think that these songs sort of created the cliches that we use in regular talk. Only strange and curious characters like myself use these phrases as direct references in regular conversation; I assume that most people just use the phrases because they express something particular.

So we know how popular culture informs the language of our art, but have we really thought about how our art informs the language of popular culture?

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