A Downloader's Diary (1): August 2010
by Michael Tatum
When I wrote rock criticism for my college newspaper -- not very good rock criticism, but my ears were only beginning to open up -- promotional copies of current releases were easy to come by. This was in the mid-nineties, the boon time for the industry: every few days my editor and I would haul a mound of mail stuffed with CDs that I had systemically requested from publicists (a list freak by nature anyway, my handwritten compendium of label contacts was extensive), augmented by whatever they happened to be feverishly promoting that month, often in duplicate. (I think they sent us four copies of Tricky's Maxinquaye, and I got away with requesting a fifth after shamelessly claiming the others had been "lost in transit.") It was the rare title I couldn't acquire by asking politely, and whatever they felt that they "didn't need to promote" (i.e. a blockbuster that didn't need my two cents attached to it) I obtained by trading my surplus swag to an independent music store in nearby Westwood. As I said, this was the boon time for the industry: when I later put my B.A. in English Literature to good use by working at the aforementioned store, label employees would show up weekly with questionably procured boxes of the latest hit records, sometimes a dozen or two of each title, each still wrapped in the original cellophane and marked by that telltale notch on the spine. I think I got every single Interscope/DGC release free for at least five years.
The second time I tried my hand at rock criticism, from 2002 to 2005, when I was the music editor at a struggling Chicago-based webzine called Static Multimedia, my promo well had dried up -- partly because my venue was smaller, but also because leaks from file sharing had made publicists a little more cautious. Plus, bloggers and webzine critics require tangible proof that someone will actually read your reviews, i.e. that you will be able to promote their record to the publicist's satisfaction. Fortunately, armed with dubious statistics about our "hit rate," the cycle familiar from my time in college soon renewed itself: review, trade, review, trade. In college the pond had been big enough so that I could basically do whatever I wanted and none of my superiors (who were good friends anyway) noticed, but to my surprise, at the indie-level that alternative types tend to ballyhoo, I encountered an unbearable level of mind-numbingly stupid politics. In my first month, I angered a publicist from a label that was considering paying for advertising. (Could you pretend to find merit in a Voodoo Glow Skulls record? I thought not.) My scathing review basically meant that we wouldn't be seeing the (I'm guessing) hundred dollars or so that would have accounted the majority of the revenue generated that month. Later, my editor skipped over me entirely and planted self-penned reviews under various psuedonyms, often plagiarizing whole chunks of PR sheets.
I've found a simple solution, cutting out the middle men from publicists to editors: downloading. Sure, downloading hurts the industry's sales line, but it provides a way to find out what you'd be buying before you waste your money on crap you'll never play again. No longer can artists get away with padding a few hit singles with filler, because even a relative Luddite like me can enlist Limewire and Kazaa to separate the wheat from the chaff with a few keystrokes. But in many ways, downloading is the great equalizer: now everyone can potentially be their own rock critic, and sift through countless releases to find what really hits his or her sweet spot: to ascertain who should be rewarded with your hard earned bucks and who should be booted from your hard drive. I can't be the only person that thinks this way -- many of the fans who streamed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or purchased In Rainbows for a penny rewarded the artists in question once hard copies became available in record stores.
The methodology behind this column is very simple. I download current releases to my hard drive, determined either by past personal interest or critical word of mouth, and spend a few weeks listening to them on my iPod. After some thought, I grade them using the Christgau Consumer Guide grading system, including the 3-star levels for B+ records. In the the top section are records (almost always A- or better) that I have something to say about; below that are honorable mentions -- B+ records that are likely to interest people into that specific artist or genre -- and Trash -- B records not worth further thought, or worse. If I really do have something to say about an exceptionally interesting B+ record or an exceptionally hideous dud I'll add it to the top section.
Despite the online availability of music before its intended release date, I am sticking to titles you could purchase from a well-stocked local record shop, or at least on the internet, although Liz Phair is online only (rumored to be released on Rocket Science in October), Old 97's is online or free at their shows, and the Loudon Wainwright is sucker-priced at $20 and hard to find at that. The Dangermouse/Sparklehorse collaboration only recently came out of legal limbo, having floated around the net for over a year, though I personally would rather it have vanished into the virtual ether.
So, I've eliminated the publicists, and found a non-commercial outlet with a sympathetic editor. Admittedly, I won't make any money off these endeavors, but there is a certain appeal about being "unfiltered" -- as Liz Phair has described her wonderful new record -- and I hope also conveys the fun I had while putting this together. Fun -- people foolishly dismiss the word because they feel the concept is at odds with depth, but I've never thought so. If Sly Stone taught as anything, isn't that why we love the music in the first place?
Big Boi: Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Def Jam) There's no gainsaying that Andre Patton is an equal partner in the Outkast franchise -- the expert production, lyrics and raps prove that, and at just under an hour, this has less fat than your average hip hop record. But just as Speakerboxxx could have used a little Love Below, even the highlights here could have been brightened up by Andre Benjamin's lighter, goofier touch. It's not just a matter of Patton's (relative) conventionality, made plain when George Clinton shows up to stank around on "Fo Yo Sorrows," but also a matter of how the Andres' personalities complement each other. Much as Benjamin's introspection added an extra dimension to Patton's bitterness in "Ms. Jackson," Patton's macho swagger on the the breakout sex jams "Turns Me On" and "Tangerine" could have benefitted from Benjamin's more playful way with the ladies. Self expression -- so overrated. A-
The Books: The Way Out (Temporary Residence) I couldn't tell you what sort of post-modern tomes grace Nick Zammuto and Paul De Jong's bookshelves, but their treasure trove of self-help tapes and found sounds constitutes an entirely different story. In a spiritual mode one of their re-contextualized gurus dubs "thumbing your nose at the universe," they continually upend our preconceived expectations. "Welcome to a new beginning," one of their many cheerfully disembodied voices tells us -- okay, we've heard that before. "Music specifically created for its pleasurable effects upon your mind, body, and emotions," we've heard that too. But we're then told to mix that music with an "orange-colored liquid" after which another voice identifying himself as our journey's guide apologizes for his "Irish accent." And that's only the first track -- I haven't even mentioned the disturbing set piece that finds foul mouthed siblings upping the ante on their threatdowns, the hymn that praises trigonometry and tanograms, or the one you think will chronicle the life and times of Kurtis Blow but reveals itself to be a bedtime story about bunny. "We genuflect before pure abstraction," they swoon, but that's just a sop to their clique -- their laptop fantasias are as vivid as a Technicolor musical and as tightly wound as an alarm clock. In fact, only toward the end, where they lapse into folkie vagaries, do they slip up. "The average human only uses about five percent of their brain," we are informed. "The other ninety-five percent is available [pregnant pause] for food." Those starving for a nourishing avant-garde record that won't leave a bullshit aftertaste in the morning should gobble this up pronto. Now if only they could convince my wife there was more than one way to do the dishes. A-
V.V. Brown: Travelling Like the Light (Capitol) Had Vanessa Brown reared her head in 2000, we might have lumped her unique brand of neo-soul with D'Angelo and Erykah Badu. The difference is, while the aforementioned auteurs used the success of Brown Sugar and Baduizm to convince their record companies to bankroll more ambitious sophomore efforts that confused fans, wowed critics, and sent their creators off the deep end, Brown's debut aims for maximum commerciality without sacrificing an ounce of her endearing weirdness, or (a related fact) her Britishness -- the monster hooks of "Joker" and "Shark in the Water" are pure Brill Building filtered though the sensibility of someone who grew up with Dizzee Rascal and the Streets. I wish the pace wasn't so hyperactive, but if Jill Scott or Mary J. Blige tackled a semi-autobiographical concept about a failed relationship with a married man, they'd lard it with ballads (and would bloat it until they ran out of disc space). By contrast, Brown doesn't lower the beats per minute until well into the second half, when she slows down a stolen moment to observe the sensuality of bicycles and plastic restaurant seats -- leading me to believe that she'll have an even better record in her when she's on the rebound. A-
Eminem: Recovery (Aftermath) Mathers complains that the critics never ask him how his day went, but he must give them some credence -- why else would he concede to the consensus that his last record sucked? Wish they'd reward him for this roaring return to form, but since they haven't, would the overstatement that this is his Plastic Ono Band entice you to give it a try? The Lennon comparisons aren't entirely un-apropos -- you've heard the AA clichés before, but never in the context of this kind of music, and while he's approached this level of intensity many times, never before has he been this convincing. Sure, you've heard him unpack his psychological baggage, deconstructing his relationships to the ex he can't quit on and the daughter that won't quit on him, but few rappers have dared challenge the notion that their chosen medium carries an expiration date -- one that at 38, Mathers has theoretically far exceeded. As before but never so explicitly, the key is a toughness that masks vulnerability transparent by design: how many rappers would admit that they considered dropping a dis on the world's greatest rapper because they felt threatened? And then invite said rapper for a cameo on a track later on the record? Who they then proceed to smoke? And though Mathers may have given up booze and pills, he hasn't forsaken vulgarity, or twisted rhymes, or bad taste, or killer hooks, or irony -- wonder what the comedians at GLAAD think of Em comparing himself to Elton John because he's a "mean cocksucker," or his proud declaration as a "Cinderella Man?" Misconstrue it, no doubt. But you know better than that -- don't you? A
Mary Gauthier: The Foundling (Razor & Tie) Gauthier has a back story that makes John Lennon and Eminem's look like an ABC afterschool special: orphaned at birth, stealing cars at fifteen, drying out in detox at sixteen, and spending her eighteenth birthday in jail, all while struggling with being a lesbian in Louisiana. Culinary school led to redemption as a restaurateur, but she sold her beloved Dixie Kitchen once her "country noir" found an audience, culminating in this devastating confessional song suite about the childhood it took her years to recover from -- if I hear a more harrowing song this year than "March 11, 1962," which details a brutal phone conversation with the absentee mother who refused to meet her face to face, I'm not emotionally prepared for it. Gauthier being a folkie rather than a rocker or rapper, the tenor of these songs gravitates to quiet catharsis/dignity rather than bold victory/rejection. But her understatement can be powerful, like the way she drops the ends of phrases in the verses of "Mama Here, Mama Gone," and the dry, austere production of Cowboy Junkie Michael Timmins sets her songs perfectly, like a jeweler who knows his pearls will look most alluring draped unadorned against plain black velvet. Though I personally find picking up the tempo a perfectly acceptable way to cheer oneself up (and don't consider "Moses, Batman, and James Dean" suitable role models), she's not as pure as your usual Razor & Tie type: I love the sour hour section that grumps through "Sideshow," and violinist Tania Elizabeth saws away on "Blood is Blood" like John Cale was Bob Wills. And not only is folkie self-pity in short supply, she even imagines a heartbreaker from the point of view of the absentee mother she'll never know: "Some people never really love/They don't mean the sweet words they say/Other people can't see the truth/I didn't know I was that way." A-
Liz Phair: Funstyle (lizphair.com) "Ding dong, the witch is dead," declares Liz in her scathing kiss-off to Capitol Records dictator Andy Slater, or perhaps would-be benefactor Dave Matthews, but that hasn't stopped humorless rock critics from burning her at the stake in effigy. I'm here to tell you the witch in question is not only very much alive, but that is her funniest, wildest, best record -- including her classic debut, which by now has become a bit of an albatross. If you think Liz has lost her last marble, she's already anticipated all of your petty objections -- the all-purpose gripe "You think it's all about you" could apply to the thousands of American women (and rock critics) who complain that Liz no longer speaks for them, as well as the bepenised corporate spoilsports she calls out by name in the uproarious "U Hate It." Why doesn't it occur to the little boys at Pitchfork that the boat party Liz is barred from in the opener is a succinct metaphor for their carefully guarded cool club? Or that Liz is fully aware that "portfolio" and "dough you know" is a bad rhyme? (I mean, does anyone think Liz Phair really has a portfolio?) I guarantee that if the faux-Bhranga sample in the much-derided (and very funny) "Bollywood" popped up as the backdrop to a Jay-Z track, it would be praised as stupidly as it's being currently dismissed. Sorting out what's "commercial" and what's not is beside the point -- would Sheryl Crow begin a song "Well, I've been in this Garden of Eden a long time/And I've never seen Adam do anything I understand," or waste her most soaring melody thanking a stranger who held back her hair while she vomited? If Phair's debut was a response to Exile on Main St., this is the Black Album with the sonic variety of the White Album -- except that unlike Prince and Paul McCartney (not John Lennon), Phair is not afraid to be vulnerable when it's time to be sincere. And you can download it straight from the artiste for a mere $5.99. A
Sleigh Bells: Treats (Mom + Pop) Sleigh Bells ring -- they also clang, peal, gong, detonate, and explode. As has been noted in almost every review I've read, this duo intends to polarize, annoying adults and other squares, while galvanizing a target demographic suggested by this priceless aside: "Wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces." Kathleen Hanna owns the patent on punk guitar wedded to laptop disco, but even Le Tigre's power chords weren't this dirty, while the booming coliseum-echo propelling the beats suggests Queen banging out "We Will Rock You" without respite for a manic half-hour plus. The melodic relief/contrast provided by Alexis Krauss's j-pop coo recalls the aesthetic strategy of My Bloody Valentine, except 1) unlike Bilinda Butcher, Krauss possesses rhythm worthy of a Brooklyn girl, and 2) unlike Kevin Shields, mastermind Derek E. Miller's mission is to move as many units as humanly possible. Here's hoping it inspires even those decades past orthodontics to dance like irresponsible teenagers around their mortgaged condos. A-
Loudon Wainwright III: 10 Songs for the New Depression (2nd Story Sound) Unlike Liz Phair, Wainwright really has a portfolio, so perhaps he'll be hip to my metaphor when I say the new songs could use a little more emotional investment ("House," "The Panic Is On") **
Alejandro Escovedo: Street Songs of Love (Fantasy) Bruce Springsteen's management does not Bruce Springsteen make -- and the femme chorus doesn't help ("This Bed Is Getting Crowded," "Street Songs") **
Against Me: White Crosses (Sire) Only three years after their breakthrough Tom Gabel channels the Boss's nostalgia and beautiful loser bullshit rather than his youthful idealism ("I Was a Teenage Anarchist," "High Pressure Low") **
Allo Darlin': Allo Darlin' (Fortuna Pop!) Young Elizabeth Morris auditions for the next Stuart Murdoch or Stephin Merritt side project ("Dreaming," "The Polaroid Song") **
Old 97s: Mimeograph (New West) Rhett Miller's no interpretive singer, but he sure beats David Bowie and Michael Stipe, if not Mick Jagger ("Driver 8," "Five Years") *
Chemical Brothers: Further (Astralwerks) Caveat emptor: a soundtrack intended as the backdrop for a series of short films, rather than a mix tape for Saturday night ("Horse Power") *
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: Before Today (4AD)
Caribou: Swim (Merge)
Dangermouse & Sparklehorse: Long Dark Night of the Soul (Capitol)
The Like: Release Me (Downtown)
Sia: We Are Born (RCA)
Squeeze: Spot the Difference (XOXO)
Sting: Symphonicities (Deutsche Grammophon)
Paul Weller: Wake Up the Nation (Yep Roc)