Wednesday, April 18, 2012

SXSW: In Annie's opinion...

Some things change, and some things stay the same:

One remarkable aspect of SXSW is, of course, the unbridled havoc it wreaks on any sense of equilibrium with which you may have arrived in Austin. As much as you feel compelled to do so, trying to plan any sort of agenda in advance feels intractably challenging. Somehow though, when you’re finally in it, you manage to create discreet experiences in the throes of what often feels like a timeless, endless loop of days and nights, stages and voices and bright flashing lights. Unsurprisingly, it’s the point at which you acquiesce to the cacophony of it all that things begin to come together. Trends become noticeable, for example.

One of those trends that I ran into repeatedly, and one I’ve been trying desperately to wrap my brain around and come up with something cohesive to say about, is the integration of prepared (e.g electronic) music that, for instance, comes out of a box or mobile device, with live music that comes out of instruments that have existed for centuries. Most of the more notable contemporary artists whom I watched play at SXSW use prepared music (beats, samples, their own previously recorded voices) as an instrument onto itself, whether they are composing it all on stage and looping it over live music, or playing along concurrently with electronic music they’ve already created, or creating more improvised moments by extemporaneously feeding the sounds their instruments make through any handful of new and crazy effects.

To put it more simply: it seems that the line between let’s say, indie rock and experimental electronic music is becoming increasingly more obfuscated by things like rapidly-evolving new technology. However, there's something else to it; When I watched folks like Washed Out perform--while yes, they utilize cutting edge music recording technology on stage as as a band member in and of itself (like when Ernest Greene stepped up to start singing, he waved his Ipad at the audience in silent acknowledgement of that of which I speak),  I also sensed an abiding evocation of decades-old ideas (heralded by the likes of Roxy Music and the Talking Heads, to name just a few) about the boundaries live music can test and trample altogether.

 Washed Out perform "New Theory"

Live music used to mean going to see a group of people coming together to showcase their technical proficiency, if not virtuosity, and play for you the songs you love listening to on albums at home (hopefully, if the band is at all decent). These days, you can find many of those people behind the counter at Guitar Center ready to talk your ear off about their favorite Jimmy Page riff. 

But things are changing dramatically. And what it all seems to indicate and reveal, is that live music has taken an almost defiant step away from what it has formerly endeavored to achieve--primarily the communication of specific and nameable talents belonging to individual band members--and toward something entirely new, possessed of a markedly different morphology that usually includes a glowing Apple logo. I haven't quite been able to put my finger on the pulse of this transformation, but I know that it's due to the convergence of the following: The rise of Apple and thus the proliferation of increasingly advanced music editing software, the disintegration of the record industry, and a shift in musical zeitgeist toward a movement that has been put on hold since the late 70's and 80's.

I'm not saying it isn't exciting to watch musical virtuosity on display. Now though, watching live music--at least in this new iteration I'm describing (one that seems to be pervading so many different genres, rather than continuously spawning new subcategories of electronica as it did in the past) --is compelling due to a myriad of other performative aspects besides the technical expertise of whomever is playing. 

Someone like Shigeto is a perfect example of this. While he's a great drummer in his own right, it's not his musicality that exhilarates those who watch him, nor is it necessarily the electronic components of his sets, which are also quite good. What's amazing about him, is the way in which he jumps back and forth between the electronic and live aspects of his work, juxtaposing these two different (potentially opposing) styles of music. And he toys with the opposition with brilliant fluidity, at times underscoring tensions between the two and at other times resolving it or showing how each can coexist with the other, all the while exhibiting to the audience the process he uses to compose his music. It's almost like watching a chef prepare a meal on cooking show.

Shigeto, live on Drums and Turntables, SXSW 2012
Lindsey has a great video of this performance, methinks

Anyway, so much more can be said, but for the sake of brevity I'll leave you, for now (over the next few days I'll be posting on my top ten shows from SXSW, the content of which will extrapolate further on all of this), with a video of Matthew Dear performing "Headcage", which I think encapsulates perfectly the ideas I'm attempting to formulate. This is a band whose sound hinges on the use of new recording and editing technology. However, there is no absence of talented musicians on stage here. This stuff is technically considered electronic music, but I think that kind of categorical imperative truly sells it short. Enjoy please!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Taking a Look at Jesse Frohman's Photos of Kurt Cobain

Because he was a photographer and not a psychic, Jesse Frohman had no way of knowing that his now-iconic pictures of grunge idol Kurt Cobain would be some of the last ever shot. But judging by the Nirvana frontman's erratic behavior both leading up to and during the session, originally commissioned as a feature for the Sunday Observer, it wasn't hard to see Cobain's demise on the horizon. By the time Frohman met Cobain in November 1993, he'd overdosed once and been through several stints in rehab. He famously appeared for the shoot three hours late, strung out, and introduced himself to the photographer by asking for a bucket he could puke in.

The Morrison Hotel Gallery in Soho is showing the series of photographs for the first time as a collection. They were shot over the course of just that one meeting, in the New York City hotel where Nirvana was staying when they played a show at Roseland Ballroom. There are some live shots from the show that night and a few taken with Krist Novaselic and Dave Grohl as well. Most of what is on display at the Morrison are straightforward portraits of Cobain against a neutral background. He is dressed eccentrically in a tattered leopard print coat, Jackie-O style bug-eyed sunglasses, and an aviator cap, with a shabby tee and jeans underneath. Chipping red nailpolish adorns his fingertips; in some pictures he is seen with a cigarette, smoke trickling from his mouth, in others he swigs a bottle of Evian as though it were Jack Daniels. The images are nothing if not captivating, in spite of (and perhaps moreso?) their repetitive quality when presented side-by-side, on a scale literally larger-than-life.

© Jesse Frohman/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery

© Jesse Frohman/
courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
As a whole, it's hard to tell how much of these photos represent a Kurt that is real but coming unhinged, and how much is Cobain simply playing the part of “rock star” - an image that he felt was forced upon him in the wake of Nirvana's insane successes. By the time these photos were taken, Kurt had publicly expressed his disdain for the media, and in many ways, his flagrant disregard for Frohman's schedule, paired with his apathetic demeanor appearing in one shot to the next, is indicative of that. While Frohman has said that during the shoot Cobain was easily molded into poses and could be very dramatic in his gestures, he refused to remove the trademark white-framed sunglasses, adding another layer of mystery and alienation from the viewer. Interestingly enough, they do provide the viewer with a unique insight into the artifice of the image – you can see lighting set-ups and even the photographer himself reflected in Kurt's lenses – and while I'm sure that was not a meditated action taken by the subject, the fact remains that what we are seeing are not candid shots. They are in some regard meticulous, despite Kurt's attempt to sabotage the shoot as Frohman planned it. Very few people really knew Kurt Cobain without the media filter either building him into a God or shaking their worried heads at his drug-addled antics, and as such, these images are part of that machine. Without expressly turning his middle finger skyward for the camera, Cobain seems flippant, defiant, aware of the fact that everyone is watching. 

On the other hand, if Kurt was as strung out as all accounts (including Frohman himself) claim, and taken in context with what would transpire mere months later, it is possible that these really are images of a man with his guard down and his back against the wall. As with any life ended in suicide, it's natural to look back to that person's actions leading up to their demise and pick each moment apart to try to discern just what went wrong. Kurt Cobain had everything, and the eyes of the world were upon him. While that pressure has been cited as a key factor in his coming unhinged, there's really no way to know why someone so talented and vital – or why anyone, really – would put a shotgun in his mouth and pull the trigger as if that wouldn't have an impact on his legacy or the world at large. It's possible that suicide was the furthest thing from his mind in November when Frohman and Cobain crossed paths, a camera between them. But it doesn't really matter; at that point, Kurt Cobain's fate as one of the most iconic musicians in rock-n-roll history was already cemented, with or without his indelible image burned into silver emulsion.

Kurt Cobain: Photographs by Jesse Frohman is on exhibit at The Morrison Hotel Gallery, 124 Prince Street, NYC through April 23rd.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Hole's Eric Erlandson Talks "Letters To Kurt"

There is one question that every music connoisseur dreads, and though it is often innocently asked, can be astoundingly difficult to answer. It might happen at a party or an intimate dinner gathering, on a first date, or on the fiftieth. But inevitably, as a means of qualifying your musical tastes, future, past, or present, it's perfectly natural for a friend or acquaintance or romantic interest to casually wonder “What's your favorite band?”

For some, the question doesn't invoke a desperate clamor or sheepish backstory; the answer is permanent and enduring and needs no defense whatsoever. For others, such as myself, it can be a bit more tricky. It's not that I'd deny my sonic proclivities, but my musical obsessions have been known to shift from one moment to the next. That doesn't necessarily make my love for any of these acts less deep, but I do end up with a quite a long list of sometimes obscure material that sort of leaves the original query unanswered.

Throughout most of my life, I've sort of maintained a Top Three essential acts that I feel provide a definite framework from which most of my musical interests can be gleaned; with these, I try not to mention anything too obscure or recent so as not to alienate anyone or pigeonhole myself. Typically, one or two of these might rotate, but for the last several years my go-tos have included Caribou and Animal Collective, which I don't think are really much of a stretch in terms of their similarities to one another, and pretty representative of the sort of genres I tend to explore nowadays.

And then there's my longtime, all time, most favorite band ever, which isn't like either of the others. As my interests in music have evolved, there's one constant which so completely informs so many aspects of my personality and my past that it will never be ousted by any other act, no matter how experimental, challenging, or prolific they seem at the time. That band is Hole.

Now, I am fully aware that Hole's early and mid-nineties contemporaries offered far more in terms of innovation and contribution to the history of what was to become alternative rock, a genre that I hold responsible for my eventual introduction into independent music. But I look to their presence in that movement as a whole to act as a sort of stand-in for so much of what was important to me at that time. They existed at the confluence of grunge and riotgrrl, two forces that offered me a precise blueprint for the way I would form my opinions, express my emotions, and live my life from that time forward; the center of the wheel from which all spokes of my being would radiate. If you think I'm exaggerating, I assure you, I am not. Even my aesthetics as a young artistic hopeful were indelibly shaped by what these bands, and Hole in particular, offered to the world at large.

She warned me it would be this way; I remember the specific moment I heard Courtney's gravelly premonition: “Someday you will ache like I ache.” I saw her black-and-white heartbreak over the loss of husband and rock idol Kurt Cobain, writhing in crumpled bedsheets each time MTV aired the video that accompanied “Dollparts”. My bad skin thankfully wouldn't last for the rest of my life, but it ensured I'd never be the prom queen on the cover of Live Through This, an album so blistering and beautiful it felt like the truest thing in my life.

I felt a kinship to Courtney Love, an ugly-ish girl obsessed with vanity and needing to be heard, to be appreciated, to be loved, and able to see the loveliness lurking in hidden, sometimes unattractive places. I watched her trashy glamour transform into Celebrity Skin, a glittering piece of pop-rock perfection with just a bit of a bitter underside. It arrived in an era where girls my age were pimped for Total Request Live, their bare bellies and pouty lips so far from anything I was interested in being or seeing, their horrible songs the last thing I wanted to hear. Instead I pumped “Awful” with a knowing smirk, in on the joke even if no one else laughed with me. Courtney's impeccable aestheticism in film, music, literature and fashion felt specifically curated for me alone, and it was with her recommendations that I explored cultural boundaries not typically tested by other girls my age.

But I don't often go into these lurid details when someone asks about my favorite band, for it seems too detailed an explanation. If I align myself with what Courtney once was, I feel I have to amend it these days; she's become a sad, drug-addled train wreck incapable of her former brilliance as a lyricist, performer, or songwriter, her tastes questionable though at one time I saw her stamp of approval as essential. And I've grown out of the need for an idol, especially when that idol has grown into a joke.

One of my biggest regrets is never getting to see the band perform live, never standing before Courtney with her leg propped on the monitors, her skirt hiked up and her guitar swinging brazenly. Her solo releases were kind of pathetic, and last year when she revived the Hole moniker as a desperate means of selling records and concert tickets I only briefly contemplated buying in. It would simply not be the same without Eric Erlandson's prolific guitar or Patty Schemel's thunderous drumming, and though she wasn't an original member, Melissa Auf der Maur's angelic backup a deft bass seemed essential to the equation as well.

On the eighteenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, I realized how truly essential these people were. Though I've made a pact with myself never to patronize evil bookselling empire Barnes & Noble, I had to make an exception that evening - Eric Erlandson was releasing his book of prose poems, Letters To Kurt, and would be joined in conversation with Melissa Auf der Mar. The discussion was warmly and expertly led by journalist Katherine Lanpher, and I was pleased as punch that Patty Schemel was also in attendance. Through the course of the evening, Erlandson fielded questions pertaining to his writing methods, the hardships he had been through both during his time in Hole and the period after they'd disbanded, and even touched on the state of American economics, politics, and music. The conversation was punctuated by both musical performances from Melissa and Eric as a duet, and readings from Letters to Kurt.

Eric opened with a shimmering banjo solo, joking that Hole had been known for their use of “traditional” instruments; his picking became more urgent and darkly tinged as Melissa introduced and began singing “My Foggy Notion”, a track from her first solo album, Auf der Mar. For later numbers, they would cover Jacques Brel's “Le Moribund” (better known as “Seasons In The Sun”) and close with The Smiths' “Paint A Vulgar Picture”, songs chosen for references that had been casually inserted into Eric's writing but also for the relevancy to the somber anniversary at hand. When Patty Schemel joined the group on stage, the three of them shared memories of the impact of Kurt's death, and Patty related a beautiful story about the first anniversary of his passing, in which Hole was on tour in Europe. A Parisian youth was waving a fanzine around desperately trying to get the band to read Kurt's interview within, and Melissa had to translate it from French. It turned out to be a blurb about how much Kurt had loved Hole, found Live Through This to be a brilliant record, and thought Patty to be an exceptional drummer.

That's the thing that made the evening (and the work presented) less salacious and more authentic than one might expect – it seems impossible, almost unreal, but these people were there, as an integral part, of music history in its making. They had a hand in writing some of the most dramatic, chaotic and prolific chapters in the story of rock music. But until now, their voices had been drowned out by the loudest, proudest widow of the bunch, who wore her pain on the sleeves of her babydoll dress. Almost two decades later, Erlandson has presented a body of prose work that attempts to approach and possibly relieve the pain that surrounded him and his band, and reproach the mistakes made not only by his muse, but those made by himself as well.

Which brings us to the “letters” contained in Erlandson's book. They are seething & surreal, hallucinatory free-associations densely packed with metaphor and memory, lifting references from pop culture and self-help manifestos, as incantatory as spells that threaten to rouse old ghosts. He delivered these pieces with a sarcastic snarl, but in reading each short chapter it's apparent that anger is not the only emotion he is attempting to excise and examine – there is suffering, empathy, sadness, love, wonder, admiration, envy, bitterness – each present in varying hues to different degrees. They feel like relics from another era, and it's true that not everyone will grasp each inside joke or obscure reference, but that is hardly the point.

Erlandson was handed, by his own admission, two things by Courtney – one that would kill him and one that would save him. The latter refers to his own dark experimentations with drugs, and the former to the Buddhist path he has followed since becoming clean and staying sober. More than anything, Letters To Kurt presents us with a portrait not of the titular muse but of Erlandson himself and the journey he has been on in the aftermath of rock stardom. The book is evidence of whatever peace he has reluctantly reached, snapshots taken from the path he is still on as a means of coming to terms with the past and meeting the future head-on. He's finally stepped into the spotlight, however reluctantly, and raised his voice, and the results are captivating.

Like Erlandson, Auf der Mar and Schemel have moved on from Hole but have respects to pay to this period of their lives; Schemel documentary Hit So Hard opens in New York on April 13th, comprised mostly of material shot while touring in the mid-late nineties, and Auf der Mar has recorded a new solo record and is heavily involved in the renovation and reopening of arts and performance space Basilica Hudson in Hudson, NY.

For all the time I spent idolizing Courtney Love, attempting to justify her antics to her detractors and to myself, emulating her bravado and feeling her pain as though it were my own, I realized on this night that so much of what really and truly resonated with me was not her histrionics, but the music itself. That truth had been obscured by her blazing star, and only now, long after that comet trail has faded into oblivion, I was able to see the earnest and authentic people responsible for the true magic which still captivates me to this day. While the front-woman who led them to fame and ultimately destroyed the band was trying to be larger than life, there were always three other band members with their feet on the ground, diligently playing with skill and grace, waiting for a time when their own brilliance would become apparent. I can no longer deny their place in my own journey, but I can thank them for shaping me, and I can share in the pride of their survivals and successes.

You can download my full recording of the conversation HERE.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

SHOW REVIEW: Keep Shelly In Athens w/ Jonquil

Keep Shelly In Athens is the awkward appellation of a Grecian duo who value an air of mystery. Named for the neighborhood in Athens in which they live – not a captive friend or lover – vocalist Sarah P and producer RΠЯ have only released a few atmospheric, Balaeric-tinged EPs and handful of remixes made available on soundcloud, but they've garnered a huge amount of interest and buzz on the internet and beyond. Their clever production incorporates occasionally hectic, glitchy breaks into otherwise smooth, surreal grooves with dark undertones. Breathy feminine vocals double back over intricate synths and chopped guitar riffs to create haunting textures, and the mesh of styles and tempos comfortably keeps the band from falling too squarely into any category. Keep Shelly has big plans to release a full length sometime this year, and with all the intrigue they've generated abroad are striking out on one of their first US tours, which opened Monday night at Glasslands.

I arrived at the venue a few songs into opening act Jonquil's set and was surprised to see Hugo Manuel at the helm, backed by a full band. If last summer proved anything it's that I'm a huge fan of Manuel's solo project, Chad Valley. Under that moniker, he's released two solid EPs chock full of beachy beats as well as a handful of remixes that in many cases improve the original track by leaps and bounds, all of it in heavy rotation in my iTunes for months and months out of last year. So I'm not quite sure how I missed the fact that he was also the lead singer in a full band. And a good one at that – Jonquil plays an immediate, earnest brand of indie pop tinged with the same tropical elements that make Chad Valley's production so infectious. In Manuel's solo work, he uses his voice more as an overarching melodic element, submerging it under echoic or fuzzy effects, dropping it deep into his rhythmic fray. In Jonquil, he lets it soar to its fullest expressive potential, sliding effortlessly into falsetto and back again into its urgent depths, brilliantly complemented by exuberant brass notes from dual trumpets. My parents watch pretty much every vocal competition show on television (though personally I think someone should combine all of these into one show, creatively titled So You Think America Has a Talented Idol Voice With The Stars?) and having seen a few of these by osmosis while visiting I found myself thinking Manuel would totally own any of the contestants that usually get picked for such drivel. Luckily, he's far more focused on his own creative output. Also, he's British, so he might be disqualified off the bat.

Keep Shelly In Athens began their set with guitarist Stefano, drummer Angelo, and hooded beatsmith RΠЯ alone on stage. Soft projections behind the band featured what looked like falling leaves, or something caught in a drift – appropriate, given the mood set by their shoegazey instrumental take on some of their remix material. Before long, they were joined on stage by tiny, spritely vocalist Sarah P, whose hair fell in soft waves over her face. Considering the subtle ebbs and flows of their dreamy releases, their live sound was much more plugged in than I'd expected it to be, creating a moodier atmosphere than is present in their recorded material. It was like being sucked into a whirlpool in all the best ways. And at the bottom of this whirlpool, a glassy-eyed mermaid awaited, cooing and sucking me deeper into the abyss. In this hallucinatory equation, that mermaid was Sarah P, whose voice sparked and burned with with swirling sensuality, while Angelo's deft drumming and Stefano's hazy guitar work took turns in the spotlight. Through it all, the mysterious man known as RΠЯ acted as maestro, confidently holding it together with connecting loops, samples, and synths.

For a band who has rarely toured the US and yet garnered so much buzz, one would think a show in Brooklyn at an impeccable venue would have been packed to the rafters (or, in the case of Glasslands, to the tissue paper clouds). The fact that they played on a Monday might be partially to blame for the surprisingly sub-par attendance, not to mention there were a handful of competing acts booked the same evening (SBTRKT, for instance, played just around the corner at Music Hall of Williamsburg). Still, Keep Shelly's live shows are a great way for such a new band to experiment sonically and cut their teeth on instrumental techniques. It's exciting to see those wheels turning and to imagine how they'll incorporate what works into their debut release. Even with the current level of talent and innovation that this band presents, it's hard to imagine their shows being ignored for very long.

My only caveat with the performance was the closing number, a cover of The Jesus & Mary Chain's seminal tune “Just Like Honey”. They'd posted their rendition on soundcloud not too long ago, so it wasn't any surprise that it made the setlist, though I found it a rather disappointing addition. This song is well beloved by pretty much anyone and everyone you know that gives any kind of shit about music, making it kind of obvious in terms of choice for cover. It's also been given a splendid re-work by Alela Diane side-project Headless Heroes. But KSIA don't change it up enough to make it interesting, and Sarah's wilting vocal delivery doesn't demand any extra attention. After performing such a strong set of original material, no one was about to get even remotely excited for such glaring retread; in fact, because they played the opening verses rather quietly, you could hear the audience talking amongst themselves as if the band had already finished playing. If I could make a career of it, I would do nothing but advise indie bands on which songs they should cover. Even if this job paid but a paltry sum, it would be well worth it in terms of bestowing the world (and myself) with rad remakes of awesome songs. Since the best I can do in the meantime is write show reviews on this blog, I've here compiled a short list of songs that Keep Shelly In Athens should consider as replacement for “Just Like Honey”, should any of the band's members stumble across it.

  1. “Passenger” - The Deftones: This might seem off-the-wall and distastefully nu-metal. But in the wash of horrible rap-metal bands to emerge from the mid-nineties, I will stand by both Around The Fur and White Pony as bastions of technical wizardry, killer vocal work, conceptual originality and oddball sexiness. And you know what? These tracks actually stand the test of time, particularly this gender-bending, possibly bi-curious duet between Chino Moreno and Tool's Maynard Keenan, a tribute to unmentionable vehicular acts. Keep Shelly In Athens' touring drummer, Angelo, would have a heyday with this one; his rapid-fire staccato made me look over to the friend whom I attended the show with and say “Shut up and drive.”
  2. “Glory Box” - Portishead: This is probably the obvious Portishead jam to cover. But no one ever covers Portishead, though I can see why. Beth Gibbon's voice is kind of untouchable. However, Sarah P's often wry vocal delivery is a good match for pretty much any track in Portishead's oeuvre, and it's no challenge to draw parallels between the two acts. They could punch up the production to give the track an original twist and better suit their own style.
  3. “#1 Crush” - Garbage: I have this fantasy that one day a bunch of chillwave bands will re-work the soundtrack to Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet song for song. Even that lame Everclear song.
  4. “You Oughta Know” - Alanis Morissette: In a rare moment, I was listening to the actual radio while actually driving an actual car, and this song came on. While I had memorized all the words to it long, long ago, that was at a point in my young life where I really had no concept of how embarrassingly vehement the lyrical content of this song truly is. I had not had any lovers at that point in my life and had therefore not been scorned by any lovers, so while I played my Alanis cassette pretty damn often, I really had no way of knowing what she was getting at, even if I wasn't quite so naïve as to not be aware of what going down on someone in a theater entailed. Now I can say I've experienced my fair share of relationships, but none that have ended so badly as the one that prompted Ms. Morissette to air Dave Coulier's dirty laundry at the top of the pops. Anyway, since hearing this song again, still alive and well on whatever fm frequency I was tuned into that random day, I've been obsessed with the idea of hearing some heartbroken version to replace the irate one we're all so familiar with. Sarah P. could easily deliver a rendition with equal parts snarl and sadness that would have blown the socks off anyone listening.
  5. any other Jesus & Mary Chain song not prominently featured in a Sofia Coppola movie