Friday, April 24, 2009

Aural Sandpaper #3

Big Black - "Kerosene"

Big Black was a Chicago noise rock band from the 1980s who, while heavily influenced by punk rock, pushed the genre to darker, more abrasive extremes than had previously been seen. They were led by the notoriously misanthropic singer and guitarist Steve Albini, who is perhaps the most important figure in noise rock’s history. Albini’s bands Big Black, Rapeman (yup, Rapeman), and Shellac are all required listening in the genre, and perfectly fuse scalding noise rock with pitch-black humor. Perhaps even more importantly, he is a renowned recording engineer (he abhors the term “producer”) whose innovative instrumental recording techniques on landmark albums like Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me gives them the harsh, hard-edged sound that is just as contributive to their classic status as the music. He is famous for his willingness to record just about anyone, and his highly ethical approach to receiving payment. He is also an outspoken music commentator who rails against major record labels. He is a living embodiment of the independent, confrontational nature of abrasive music.

His engineering abilities and caustic personality can be both found in Big Black’s music, which fuses harsh, distorted guitar and bass and booming drum machine loops to Albini’s cynical, sarcastic, nihilistic lyrics about pedophilia, racism, domestic violence, and any other ugly topic one can think of. Their greatest song, however, is the infamous “Kerosene,” a brutal, harrowing descent into the darkest places that small-town boredom can go.

“Kerosene” is inspired by Albini’s upbringing in Missoula, Montana, a place where his friends would go to the slaughterhouse to watch cows get killed for entertainment, and a place where he felt alienated, isolated, and most of all, bored. Many of Albini’s songs, just like a lot of punk songs, are about crushing, deadening boredom, but “Kerosene” is the definitive statement on the subject. Bassist Dave Riley frames the story of “Kerosene” as, “there's only two things to do (in small-town America). Go blow up a whole load of stuff for fun. Or have a lot of sex with the one girl in town who'll have sex with anyone. 'Kerosene' is about a guy who tries to combine the two pleasures.” The lyrics are exactly how the uneducated, disengaged, probably teenaged narrator of the song would speak. “I was born in this town, lived here my whole life,” the song begins. “Lived here my whole life” becomes a mantra, repeated after every line of the first verse, summarizing the narrator’s abject disgust at being confined to such a dead-end place. He’ll “probably learn to die in this town,” where there’s nothing to do except, “sit around at home, stare at the walls / stare at each other and wait till we die.” Nothing to do, until he observes that “there’s kerosene around, that’s something to do/ there’s kerosene around, she’s something to do...there’s kerosene around, set me on fire!” Where Albini sings most of the verse with a dead-eyed sneer, on the last line he crescendos to a desperate yell, while the music explodes along with the exhortations to destruction. The simplicity of the lyrics on paper cannot convey the intensity that Albini brings to them. He loads every syllable with rage, menace, and revulsion, and they leave his lips with a cobra-like spit. He so fully embodies his creation that the listener cannot help but feel as desperate and hopeless as the narrator of the song, whose only escape is to be burned alive.

The instrumental playing of the song perfectly matches the lyrics and vocal performance. The verses are driven by a churning, distorted bass riff, and the clanging guitars that erupt on the chorus are like steel cables being slashed with razor blades. The defining moment comes at 4:46, when the song appears to end, only to come back into the already aggressive main riff with even more volume and force than before. The false stop is a simple musical trick, but here Big Black uses it to devastating effect, letting the listener know that it’s never over. There’s no escape from this town.

“Kerosene” still resonates more than twenty years after its release, because small-town rural America still has the sort of characters the song describes. Few songs embody the the hopeless, “No Future” spirit of punk rock as fully as “Kerosene.”

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Developing Story: "The Hipster Grifter"

I don't really know why I'm posting this, as it has nothing to do with me. It's just kind of a fascinating story, I think, because it involves real-life cinematic con-artistry. This woman, Kari Ferrell, moved to Brooklyn last summer, charmed and insinuated her way into social circles, and then lied about having cancer and all sorts of crazy shit. Then, when everyone Googled her, they found out that she was wanted on outstanding warrants in Utah. Weird. You don't think this sort of thing happens, right? Also, everybody seems to know her. Every comment on every one of these stories is somebody saying, "yeah, this girl did all the stuff to me that she did to everyone else." Maybe EVERYONE IS LYING?!?! I lied, too. I do know why I'm posting this: I have a theory that all girls with massive chest tattoos are crazy and you should stay away from them. This just proves my point. Some will yell scary threats at you in McDonald's, some will beat you up, some will steal your $60,000. So stay away. Validation! Here's a roundup of all the stories.

What a world.
Ol' Dirty Bastard - Brooklyn Zoo

Saturday, April 11, 2009

New St. Vincent video - "Actor Out Of Work"

Here's the video for the sort-of title track from St. Vincent's forthcoming album, Actor. It's a pretty straightforward rock song, but with those dramatic flourishes that make St. Vinnie's Hospital so distinct. Annie Clark looks lovely as usual and I have a crush on her, which is not something I would normally make a point of mentioning, but I will this time because so cute. But also good music! I have a true story about Annie Clark that's really interesting and exciting*: once I stood next to her at the Knitting Factory. She was very pretty. I could tell she wanted me, but was too shy to make a move. Next time, Annie.

(via GvsB)

If you like this, here's an MP3 (via Mediafire):

St. Vincent - Actor Out Of Work

Actor comes out 5/4. I guess it leaked a few days ago, but you should buy it because that's the responsible thing to. If you download it, SHAME ON YOU!

*Parts of this story are neither true, exciting, nor interesting.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Aural Sandpaper #2

Xiu Xiu - “Nieces Pieces (Boat Knife Version)”

Where the previous installment of Aural Sandpaper looked at a song that went for abrasion through volume, this one’s song does it very quietly, and even more effectively. “Nieces Pieces,” by the San Francisco band Xiu Xiu, explores a dark, ugly side of humanity while never rising above a whisper. Through atmospherics and some profoundly disturbing lyrics, Xiu Xiu creates a bleak, unshakable portrait of family dysfunction.

No matter how hard I try to come up with a more intellectual description of Xiu Xiu’s music, I keep coming back to “fucked up.” There is no better way to describe it. While there have been countless musicians who are personally fucked up, few are as willing to display it as Xiu Xiu’s leader Jamie Stewart. Where most songwriters try to poeticize their pain, Stewart shows his scars for all to see, putting things as bluntly as possible and pathologically reaching into the darkest depths of his battered psyche, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the listener. Listening to Xiu Xiu is like eavesdropping on an unusually intense therapy session.

No song in Xiu Xiu’s discography full of anguish is as painful as “Nieces Pieces (Boat Knife Version)” (I don’t know what “Boat Knife Version” means. As far as I know, this is the only released version). Stewart addresses the song to his newborn niece. For most uncles, a new niece would be a joyous event, but Stewart has seen too much to be happy. He knows that life will not be kind to this poor little girl, because she has the misfortune of being related to him and has family. “I can’t wait to watch you grow up,” Stewart sighs, “I can’t wait to meet the first boy who breaks your life.” In these lines, the first of the song, he foretells the girl’s difficult future, and how it will only get worse from there. He then tells her about some of her family history, how her uncle and mother’s childhoods were marred by physical and sexual abuse. The descriptions of abuse set up the song’s final, impossibly devastating lyric, “I can’t wait until you realize that Mommy’s heart is broken/ I can’t wait to watch you grow up around the people who broke it.” Stewart is both a witness and a contributor to one of the most depressing things there is: a life doomed before it has even really begun. His niece is fated to “turn from good to bad.” She will grow up to be just like the rest of her family, broken.

The lyrics are upsetting on their own, but when taken with the music, it becomes almost too much to bear. The song is based around a mournful, discordant two- note horn part. There are only a few other elements: a drone provided by a hard-to-identify instrument, perhaps an accordion, a disingenuously pretty guitar part that comes late into the song, and Stewart’s quavering voice. The lack of percussion creates a disorienting rhythmic effect. In fact, there is hardly any rhythm to the song, leaving it quiet and free-flowing. The sparseness and fragility of the arrangement juxtaposes with the ugliness of the lyrics while simultaneously complementing them perfectly. The atonality and lack of rhythm are just as difficult to digest. Stewart’s singing is the focal point, however, and he carries the song with his performance. He is not a traditionally good singer, but he often still tries to sing operatically, which makes him sound like a confrontational drama queen. The opera is not present here, exactly, but he still sounds like a confrontational drama queen, albeit a defeated one. He murmurs the words in an airy, tremulous tone, sounding on the verge of an emotional collapse. Stewart seems to be searching for catharsis, but unable to find it. The rhythm and melody follow his own weird, internal guideline. It all adds up to an unsettling whole.

“Nieces Pieces” is a hard song to listen to, and Xiu Xiu’s detractors accuse them of being irredeemably ugly and exploitative. I don’t think this is true; Xiu Xiu’s music works in the same way that a director like Todd Solondz or Gaspar Noe’s films do: the art is in the depiction of the ugliness. It is a rare unfiltered look at darkness, and maybe it can help us to better understand the basest depths of humanity.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

b4-4 - "Get Down"

My friend Riley posted this video on my friend Gideon's wall:

Gideon's baffled, outraged response is almost the same as mine:

"Those guys are fucking scumbags/the one who only sings back up vocals in the black wifey is the scummiest/what the fuck is going on with this storyline?/ A young black kid and a homeless person are whisked away to a beach planet where androgynous queers are singing about oral sex?/ somehow both the homeless person and the black kid are better for this experience?/ the eight year old black kid, in a culmination of this viewmaster vision, can now dunk? Because he's black? because the music is so good? Because later someone male/female may go "down on him"? The kid is like six and he's dicking around on the beach with a football, some chicks and these mascara'ed out fucking losers?/ what the fuck was the director thinking? What the fuck was anyone thinking in the writing/production of that? unbelievable. That was appalling."

I just have a few things to add:

The homoerotic undertones of this video are quite striking. There are homoerotic elements to all boy bands, but these guys take it farther than any other. Specifically, the loving shots of the weightlifter, the gender neutrality of the lyrics, and the emphasis on the lyric "it's a GAYme of give and take." Subtlety! Actually, though, this song does kind of subtly slip some positive messages about equality into a mainstream song (b4-4 was somewhat popular in Canada, apparently) about how gay people are no different than anyone else: they are just as capable of making insipid, laughably terrible music as any straight idiot. Isn't there a group of powerful gay figures a la the Black Crusaders from 30 Rock who could have put a stop to this? Maybe they did. Boy bands are over now, aren't they?

Speaking of the Black Crusaders, they would take exception to the portrayal of black people in this video. As Gideon pointed out, the kid is good at basketball. That's a stereotype. The kid is also depicted as a pimp. That's an offensive stereotype. Did he turn out this way because he grew up without a father, because all black people grow up without fathers? Right, b4-4?

Furthermore, the inclusion of the kid in this video should offend anyone who is not a pedophile. Women love him, it is implied that men love him, and probably at the end of the shoot everyone 'got down' on him. There is no reason to expose a child to this sort of sexuality.

Finally, the expression is "go down," not "get down." If you're going to use a euphemism, at least make it different enough to make you not look like a fool.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Do y'all have Netflix accounts? Do y'all rate movies on Netflix and pay attention to the recommendations it gives you?

Because I do.

And shit just got crazy specific.

These are the types of movies that Netflix thinks I would be interested in:

-Revenge Thrillers From the 1970s
-Dark Movies Starring Robert DeNiro
-Exciting Independent Dramas
-Critically-acclaimed Cerebral Comedies
-Visually-striking Mind-bending Foreign Movies


I'm not sure how I feel about this. One the one hand, it's very accurate and gives me useful recommendations. On the other hand, it's so accurate that it's unnerving. My personal preferences can be deconstructed by a computer program that knows me better than I do, and it's not even human. It makes me feel inhuman. Plus, it makes me look like a total pretentious douchebag. "Critically-acclaimed Cerebral Comedies?" Who am I, Jeff Daniels in "The Squid & the Whale?"

Another issue here is consumer surveillance. Netflix is collecting data on me and storing it away, keeping tabs on my activity. A corporation knows me personally. In order to get this special service, I have to give more of my privacy away. I've given Netflix access to both my bank account and my mind.

My question is: where do y'all draw the line between getting cool products and becoming a drop in the sea of information?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Aural Sandpaper #1

The Jesus Lizard - “Boilermaker”

There is a lot of music out there, and most of it serves a purpose: to make the listener happy, to make the listener sad, for dancing, for meditation, to try and get someone to sleep with you, etc. Most of it wants to be liked. It is designed to entice the audience with a catchy hook or a relatable lyric, and for most people this is enough. The average, sensible person wants music that is pleasant to listen to, easy to like even if it’s thematically difficult (Steely Dan, for example. So smooth, but so fucked up). But what about those people who don’t want to hear or play something nice? Those people who are more interested in being provoked, challenged, or repelled? Those who see the world as an ugly place, but still find value in the ugliness? Yes, there is music for them, too. It can be found in dark corners, dank do-it-yourself venues, and Japan. It’s loud, nasty, often druggy, sometimes violent, disgusted and disgusting. It’s also sometimes as beautiful and transcendent as “Rhapsody in Blue” or whatever. No matter what it is, once you hear it, it’s hard to forget, whether you like it or not. If this doesn't sound appealing, that's ok. U2 has a new album out. Go listen to that. But if it does, then put on your rattiest t-shirt, crank up the volume, and enroll in art school (other than Parsons), because things are about to get ugly.

Since I don’t want to let things escalate too quickly, I’ll be starting off with a relatively accessible track, the Jesus Lizard’s “Boilermaker.” Founded in 1987, the Jesus Lizard was a flagship band in the fertile Chicago noise rock scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. They released six albums before breaking up in 1999, and a reunited lineup will be touring this year. Several of their albums were produced by Steve Albini, possibly the most important figure in abrasive music of the past twenty-five years, who will be covered here at a later date. “Boilermaker” is the first track on their third album, 1992’s Liar.

When I say this song is “relatively accessible,” I mean it’s accessible relative to one’s tolerance for feedback or screaming. While “Boilermaker” may be more appealing to a rock radio listener than, say, the droning, doomy metal of Sunn O))), it is still definitely not for the faint of heart. It is aggressively fast-paced and follows a verse-chorus-verse structure, which puts it in line with hardcore punk. Guitarist Duane Denison’s guitar sound and style of play are reminiscent of grunge, very loud and overdriven but still clear, similar to Kurt Cobain’s on Nirvana’s In Utero, which was also produced by Steve Albini. However, what separates “Boilermaker” from any other punk or grunge song is vocalist David Yow. On “Boilermaker” and most other Jesus Lizard songs, he sounds like a man driven mad by rage, a crazed drunken redneck who would not hesitate to smash heads with whatever he has handy. He doesn’t sing so much as he rants, his words coming out in a breathless tangle. The melody is secondary to Yow making his rhythms as blunt as possible. He sounds totally untrained, which makes his delivery come across as wild-eyed and out of control. His vocals are buried low in the mix, which only makes them more menacing. You may not be able to understand what he’s saying, but you know it isn’t good. A look at the lyric sheet shows that the song appears to be about a man getting drunk before he busts in on his girlfriend and her lover. “I’ve calmed down, but I’m shaking,” he growls at the beginning, just before the chorus, “make me another boilermaker.” A boilermaker is a shot chased by a beer, a no-nonsense drink sure to get you drunk. Yow spits the chorus so venomously that the listener feels the implied beatdown coming before it ever does. You’re shaking? No, Mr. Yow, I am.

Of course, Yow’s menace would go nowhere if not supported by the rhythm section’s precision and intensity. They stop on a dime and start back up again just as quickly. The thrashing power chords hit with the force of a hammer. Every time I listen to this song, the phrase “blunt force trauma” comes to mind. The drums, bass and guitar each slam the listener individually, and then collectively slam even harder. The music matches the violence of the lyrics perfectly.

“Boilermaker” is exemplary of the frantic intensity of the Jesus Lizard. They are one of the few bands that genuinely makes the listener fear for his or her safety.