My latest music review in the OC Weekly — the new Brian Jonestown Massacre

It was interesting trying to come up with a review that acknowledges the band’s noteriety while not getting lost in it — as well as pointing out that Anton is someone who knows how to rile people up on a nearly constant basis. It’s a good album, one of his best ones, almost a return to the Methodrone days in some senses, but at the same time definitely something he could have recorded no other time than in recent years. Anyway, enjoy!

In a manner of speaking, semantics won’t do

So while I was away I got a copy of the Winston Tong overview on LTM, In a Manner of Speaking, in the mail. Great collection from a very underrated artist — friendly guy as well, we’ve exchanged a couple of e-mails in the past based on reviews for the All Music Guide I’ve done. His most famous song, done as part of a Tuxedomoon album, provides the title of the compilation, and having been familiar for years with the Martin Gore cover as well as the Nouvelle Vague remake a couple of years back it was nice to finally hear the original — I can be awfully lazy sometimes when it comes to tracking down things! It’s also especially enjoyable to hear how all three versions are quite different from each other — Tuxedomoon’s spare, understatedly intense take is not Gore’s warm, tremulous take is not Nouvelle Vague’s bossa nova take etc.

But while I was also away something else came up covering semantics and speaking, namely a certain comment a few days back by one Senator Obama and the attendant fallout, which for now seems to have reached a concluding point with last night’s frustrating and infuriating debate. The amount of venting of pure rage at Charlie Gibson as moderator in particular still seems to be roiling, and a lot of it is due to the questions and how everything was pitched and aimed at the candidates — and it had to be a sign of the stars aligning when Jonah Goldberg’s comment about how the debate seemed to be little more than ‘Republican water-carrying’ almost perfectly echoed the sentiments unfolding on the respective ILX thread at the same time. To say that there are a lot of grumpy people this morning — as well as a few thrilled ones thinking McCain came out on top as a result, thus increasing the grumpiness — understates.

Getting into some sort of kvetch against mass media idiocy and the confusions and conflations of politics and policy right now — tempting as it is and being a continuation of past sentiments of mine over the years anyway — isn’t my goal in this post. Nor is it the fact that more than ever candidates are under surveillance with an even closer eye thanks to the Net (“citizen journalism” as a term annoys me for some reason; that might be a subject for a further post). Still, the whole ‘bitter’ fallout reminds me of Raymond Williams’ Keywords, a now justly-famed take on language and meaning covering ‘key words’ in terms of cultural study. I cannot claim to be an expert on Williams and will not try to pretend otherwise but a core value of the book lies in unpacking how language changes and takes on new contextual meanings with political resonance.

To my mind that’s been the chief value of the whole ‘bitter’ kerfluffle and all that comes from it — it’s been noted already that because Obama spoke to an invited audience he likely assumed a certain general agreement among his listeners, however unconsciously, and similarly there’s an unconscious sense of how words can be taken by such audiences — as a general rule, not in specifics, of course (otherwise this would not have been reported in the first place). This isn’t any great shakes to observe on my part, but contextual meaning of a word that becomes a keyword (or a keyword itself) mutates constantly and probably accelerates all the more quickly in this century, though a general rule still applies of there being a lowest-common-denominator take on things versus a slew of minority readings covering any amounts of nuance.

I’m not a politician and I’m not campaigning for votes on the broadest possible spectrum in a nation-state, ie actually at the nation-state level rather than something smaller. The pressures on how to address or respond to certain groups and their collective or individual questions, or to say what might be assumed they want to hear, are manifold pressures and they are not mine, they’re not most of anybody’s. Under a microscope, all three candidates have misspoken at best, betrayed some deep concerns at worst (that may sound unduly cynical but I think it’s best to assume that whatever your feelings on the three candidates, what you’re hoping for more than anything out of your preferred choice is not to be a stellar and world-changing figure but simply someone who can amelioriate idiocies of recent years — and a big reason why Obama captures the attention he does is precisely because he is not as obviously invested in those idiocies).

Still, being careful of one’s choice of words is all the more important now, even as this whole thing grinds on, and on. The votes in the end act as a voice in response to the candidates’ own words, and the last thing any of them want — and Obama especially knows it now — is a response where, to quote Tong’s stellar lyric again, silence becomes reprimand.

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And the second — and final! — EMP 2008 Pop Conference wrap-up post

I had hoped for a more detailed take to offer everyone here, looking at the entirety of the weekend with an eye to summarizing and reflecting. But the one thing I’m taking away from it all is that I’m *tired* — as I told a friend on the phone tonight, it’s only been today I’ve started to feel more in balance, and even then it’s a conditional one. I’m still feeling like I’ve not had much sleep, and honestly can’t wait for the weekend to arrive.

Now in part this was because of the birthday party I attended last night — and another one to come on Friday too! — so arguably I haven’t had a full and comfortable night’s sleep in some time (nothing again where I was staying in Seattle, of course — but a couch is a couch, not a bed!). But EMP as an experience is always mentally exhausting, in both the best and worst way. Worst because you always feel like you have to engage to follow it all to any reasonable extent, and because so much is offered in so short a space. Best because it IS all there for you, a series of often amazing gifts, whether it lies in the discoveries or the snippets or the analysis.

I felt both of that when doing all my transcribing, a constant disbelief that I was able to keep up as well as I did while also making sure I did my damnedest to do just that. But I also wanted to make sure that I enjoyed myself, which I did and then some; as mentioned a few days back, it is the social aspect of the conference as much as its content which makes it attractive. It helps that I have a preset context to enjoy Seattle, with so many friends there and so many visits under my belt; I won’t pretend to truly know the city but I can sense my way around things reasonably enough and familiarity has proven to be an increasing advantage. Combined with catching up with friends and colleagues who I hadn’t seen in months, and in some cases a full year since the previous conference, was its own reward as well; others who couldn’t make it were sadly missed.

It’s been interesting gauging the debates and thoughts on the conference’s overall success or lack thereof this year as well. I haven’t really touched on it so far but there was quite a bit of discussion of the keynote panel in the days following, and a lot of it was negative. Robert Christgau’s thoughts in his first EMP post on the panel were of disappointment, but many other comments were far more angry and aggrieved. Unpacking it all would take a while — and there were a few things said during the panel itself that had me scratching my head a bit as I was blogging it — but quite honestly much of the panel discussion was incredibly familiar to me in both academic and SoCal contexts. I don’t want to ascribe much of the reaction to the panel as being simply one of annoyed surprise and yet I’d also say that I’d be willing to guess those of us who work in those environments (or, like myself, both at once) probably felt a bit surprised by that surprise. As ever, context is all, and the contexts of the attendees all differ more than you might guess.

As for the overall conference itself, good friend and my Seattle host Mackro had this to say about it, and it strikes me as a fair take given the conference’s somewhat politicized theme this year. To quote a key part:

The ironic dearth: less engagement, less discource, less conflict. I think people were more AFRAID to say anything during the q&a’s this year than before. Then again, it’s safe to say most of the conference attendees this year were pretty much on the same side of the political spectrum, so there was less to argue against.

BUT I noticed this during one of the more benign panels. Some guy in a Social Distortion T-shirt said at the end of a Clash presentation “Who cares about The Clash?” That’s when about two dozen people raised their hands to ask the *presenters* questions. That Social D guy successfully did what was needed. He actually POKED people. Before that, no one wanted to ask questions. People were more afraid to “poke” this year than before. Why?

This is an interesting take that I haven’t seen voiced much elsewhere, if at all, though I can’t pretend to have read every one out there. Mackro is slyly calling a bluff here in understated fashion — are we all, after all, only speaking to ourselves in the end (something I’ve often always wondered about while moving between venue to venue and room to room while the ‘regular’ EMP visitors go through the exhibits and participate with the play-it-yourself attractions — it’s a subtle psychological separation that I’ve always found interesting for what has recently become a free event, though I understand the reasons for the distinctions made) — but also is I think underrating the potentials for conflict and disagreement within that audience. In the piece I linked above, Christgau details a few of those conflicts — academics/journalists and who presents more effectively, for instance, or the argument about, at one panel he attended, “whether the graduate-school postmodernese in which the dreadful previous paper was written constituted a dialect of English whose effect and/or intent was exclusion.” (I had been at said panel earlier and had heard something went down after I left; in retrospect part of me wanted to see it but part of me also knew that if I got onto that particular hobby horse I’d never get off it!) Bald-men-and-comb stuff, some might argue, but in keeping with my own hopefully improving perceptions of political nuance it was refreshing to sense that the monoliths are so rarely that — a lot of people brought a lot of different things to the table, no matter how much or little they were directly stated.

But to step back to Mackro’s point — elsewhere in his post he notes the question of fatigue, physical and mental, and I don’t think it’s any great revelation to note that the Pop Conference guiding spirit, Eric Weisbard, openly wrestled with the question of how many papers to include and what the length of the conference should be in the future at a couple of points throughout the weekend. As is always the case during the conference I try not to monopolize his time — it’s a bit like the folks who organize the Terrastocks, they do all the work, rush around and everyone’s always asking them at least a few questions every other minute — but you could tell he was feeling it a bit like most of us were.

Of course, it could simply mean that I’m getting old and less energetic. But that can’t be true, with me planning on living forever and all. I’m a realistic person, after all.

Anyway, to conclude on a positive note — it was, as always, well worth it, and everything from meeting everyone before the opening reception to the concluding post-conference meal at Tamarind Tree, followed by the launch party for the new issue of Yeti, made it all the more worth it. Mine was just one experience of many, a slightly cockeyed lens to read it all through perhaps — but if any of this sounds like it would have been at all interesting, come out for next year’s conference. You’ll find yourself rewarded.

A little something basic (for me at least)


Orzo with homemade tomato sauce (patiently waiting in the freezer from last summer) and fresh parmesan, a radish/apple salad with walnuts (interesting combination) and bread with a bit of margarine and garlic. No complaints!

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