Talk about a beautiful weekend in SF

Totally lovely weather up there the whole time, it was worth going for that reason alone. I’ve got a small batch of photos up, a bit haphazard but including a few shots of a new favorite band, the Mighty Slim Pickins, and this posed-but-why-not shot of my sis and I:

Good times!

An overdue link to that Sebastien Grainger piece in the OC Weekly

And here ’tis, etc. — friendly guy, good interview! A snippet:

“We’ve been touring on and off for something like two years now. It’s been a while!”

Sebastien Grainger says this from a van somewhere on the road in deepest Arkansas, en route from Little Rock to Austin, Texas, to play yet another stop with his band the Mountains on his seemingly endless tour. It’s part of the whirl of activity the thoughtful Montreal native has found himself involved in since the end of Death From Above 1979, the duo that helped bring him and former band mate Jesse Keeler to fame.

While that group’s brusque, energetic dance/punk fusions found Grainger on drums as well as singing, on his self-titled solo debut (as well as in concert), he takes over on guitar, delivering up a walloping series of anthems—“American Names,” “By Cover of Night (Fire Fight)”—that are as much un-ironic FM radio epic as frenetic groove.

“I was trying to do something that was exciting for me,” Grainger explains. “I wanted it to sound big, to explore different ways to achieve it. I didn’t want it to sound modest; I wanted it to sound glorious, full-on—where my tastes lie. I’ve had experience playing in big venues now, and I know that small music just isn’t good for places like that!”

A 33 1/3 update — and my proposal in full

The other day the refined shortlist for the next batch of 33 1/3 books was posted on the official blog. One of the choices is a proposal on Radiohead’s Kid A, but alas, it’s not mine — it would have been a treat to see if I could make it all the way to the final round, but you can’t have everything!

Mind you, if you read some of the comments on the blog above, it almost seems like some people think you can. That said, there are two separate issues to unpack a bit. On the one hand, as Maura commented over at Idolator, the final list tends to stick to a “Big Albums And Artists That Stand The Maybe A Bit Rockist-Leaning Test Of Time” model — though let’s face it, my choice of subject matter pretty much fit into that.

On the other hand, though, the sheer amount of lack of grace, conspiracy theories and other bitterness in many of the comments leads me to shake my head a bit. A little perspective here — when I received word I hadn’t made the cut, I was up north visiting my sister, and just a minute before I saw the rejection e-mail, she had just passed on some further word about a dear friend of hers, who I also know, that had been in a terrible car accident through no fault of her own the previous night. While her brain and spine weren’t damaged, this friend was very severely hurt, faces numerous surgeries and will be spending months in recovery.

So when I read the e-mail, of course I was disappointed a bit, but I was mostly thinking about my sis’s friend and the cruel hand fate had dealt her. Even without that weighing on my mind I hope I would have taken the note with equanimity, but as it was I was actually pretty numb. There are more important things in life, after all.

All that said, I figured I might as well share the actual proposal here, as a bit of a curio. It was definitely flattering to have gotten so far with it, and my understanding is that there was some pretty fierce debate over whether to go with this one or the other one. If that proposal makes the final cut then you can be the judge when the book comes out — and hey, for all I know my book might have turned out pretty terribly in the end!

No less than Radiohead’s immediately preceding album – 1997’s OK Computer – 2000’s Kid A, the band’s fourth full-length release, generated both wide attention on appearance and continuing awareness since, especially due to its perceived break from the ‘real’ rock the band had gained fame for in favor of a distinctly different sonic palette based in electronics. What is less remarked upon now is how, somewhere between intent and accident, the album – anticipated and, even more importantly, leaked and released in the year when file-trading via Napster became part of widespread cultural knowledge – represents an intersection of technological trends and opportunities, not one which either the band or its then record label had full control over even as they happily participated in it, that has set the tone for how listeners encounter and consume music. The microcosm of Kid A’s themes about technological absorption and alienation, often expressed in often strikingly romantic and, intriguingly, retrospective rather than futuristic terms and styles, exists within a macrocosm: the unintentional symbolism of album and band arriving in and inaugurating a largely unexpected new world, now since taken as commonplace. It’s a world where the ‘music business’ as previously understood has steadily contracted, and increasingly where, to borrow from Marx, all that is solid has melted into air – or onto YouTube clips, or limited edition vinyl runs, or something else besides.

This book will look at these issues through two lenses – my experiences as a fan and a necessarily brief but broader consideration of the artistic and technological histories that produced Kid A as unstable artifact. A partial role model here is Timothy White’s The Nearest Faraway Place, his study of the Beach Boys that also was a study of the creation of ‘Southern California’ as a psychogeographical landscape, covering everything from how and why people moved to the area from other parts of the United States and elsewhere to the interlocking evolution of youth culture as the Los Angeles area grew over the years, how the Beach Boys were shaped by greater forces as much as they seemed to shape them. I strongly believe that Kid A and the admittedly vast subject of ‘music and the Net’ can be similarly, fruitfully twinned – how one band, one album, and one listener fit into a wider whole, a product and reflection of time and place.

Here is a brief ‘rough draft’ sample of the kind of tone and content I am aiming for in the book:

“For the longest time my copy of this album was a slowly rotting CDR that I burned from the mp3s that circulated when it first leaked to the Net. It has all the odd little glitches that cropped up in the rip of “Optimistic,” spikes and stutters that aren’t ‘glitch’ in musical terms, but actual mistakes, clips and interference. It wasn’t the official version of Kid A, with artwork and UPC codes and copyright warnings, it wasn’t even my version since these glitches were shared with a lot of other people out there, from whoever had created the original rip. When that person made that rip, a personal stamp had been placed on it, an unintended remix via the mechanics of the copy made or the computer used to create the rip, or maybe even simply the tray the CDR rested in. If vinyl crackles and radio has static, then this kind of error is the legacy of the CD in part, the thing that seems to make it real, even as the action of ripping the album created something else entirely, the formless sound file, the theoretically unchangeable artifact that is never fixed in place.”

The outline:

INTRODUCTION – A USER IN 2000: The framing stories for the book consist of two separate incidents where I engaged with Radiohead via the computer – where the computer wasn’t incidental but essential, where the existence of the technology of the Net and personal computing and everything that went into that had to come first. The introductory story discusses the day I purchased tickets for the band’s Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl concert for the short American Kid A tour – this was done, not by standing in line outside ticket outlets or a box office or trying to call on the phone, but by patiently waiting in front of a computer on a recently installed cable internet network, accessing a vendor’s website. The goal here is to show how something so mundane is in fact remarkable, unusual – to remind all of us now what it was like then, before it was mundane.

SINKING INTO THE NETWORK: Rather than starting with Radiohead or Kid A, the book proper begins by discussing the evolution of personal computing and the Net with an eye on music – not so much musical creation as electronic discussion and sharing between companies, programmers and users, in the seventies and beyond. Where and what were the initial flashpoints, and what decisions in retrospect had the greatest impact down the line? Some representative examples include: the evolution of Usenet discussion groups and mailing lists on bands and styles, the use of the CD-ROM as a standard data format in personal computers, the development of the mp3 format and its adoption as a widespread standard for sharing music, the creation of the World Wide Web, the debut of the Internet Underground Musical Archive in 1993 as the first formal site for bands to share and sell their work online, the haphazard recognition of the music industry on dealing with the Internet in general and the increasing commercial interest in higher-end and faster Internet service for home users. Potential interview subjects – computer/Internet historians, record company employees, radio station employees, music press writers.

RADIOHEAD – JUST ANOTHER UK POSTPUNK/PROG/ELECTRONIC BAND?: This chapter reviews the position of Radiohead as a simultaneously new and familiar band throughout the 1990s. There’s a well worn pathway the group followed in its initial fame – its appeal to Anglophiles and college radio in America, its love/hate relationship with the music press, the ‘breaking’ of America and a one-hit wonder tag, gained with the success of “Creep.” As time passed and their work became more overtly complex, the tone of discussion shifted towards the gravely serious, with OK Computer’s critical and commercial success being a key turning point, even as the band’s humor arguably became more overt and direct while their disenchantment with a perceived role as musical standard-bearers became equally notable. Meanwhile, the band’s increasing interest in electronic music – both in earlier 20th century experiments and in then-contemporary popular efforts, most notably the putative genre of ‘intelligent dance music’ or IDM – became clearer over time, pushing the perceived identity of Radiohead as a ‘rock’ band to increasing extremes. Potential interview subjects – band members and associates, webmasters of long-running fan sites, mailing list moderators, music press members.

TOWARDS A NEW MILLENNIUM: Radiohead established a website early on in its career – who were the prime movers in the band and its associates behind this move, and what were their goals and expectations? How quickly did their fans find them and each other online, and what communities did they build, and with what tools? When the sessions for what became Kid A and, later, Amnesiac progressed, the band used their site and the fan networks associated with it to preview material online, inviting fans to tune in and catch what they could – and clearly expecting they would be there. But who were these fans, with what technology and Internet connections in the late nineties would they use to listen in? As the sessions moved towards completion, the wider world saw the rise of Napster, the popularity of mp3s and the widespread knowledge of file-sharing. High-profile leaks had already occurred for bands like Metallica, Oasis and the Cure – how did Radiohead and EMI react to all this as the release date approached? Was there any overall clear approach or was it improvised? Potential interview subjects – band members and associates, webmasters of long-running fan sites, mailing list moderators, music press members, EMI employees, computer/Internet historians, music press writers.

KID A’S LIVES – Kid A’s songs were formally introduced to Radiohead’s fans via an initial European tour, with performances recorded and almost immediately shared online, to widespread interest. A month before its formal release, Kid A then appeared as a leaked document, a bare presentation of imageless files, even as elaborate limited editions of the album were announced, in both vinyl and CD formats, while formal single and video releases were eschewed in favor of Internet-targeted advertising which began appearing in the form of embedded sound clips and video files. The debate over the sound of the album and Radiohead’s choices for performance and arrangements was immediate – had they sold out, turned their back on rock, made a huge artistic mistake? What, then, was – and is – Kid A? A studio creation, a collection of songs, a concept album, an encapsulation of music and technology in and of itself and as reflected via mp3 sharing, the sharing of live tracks, the on-the-spot tracking. Was it ‘just’ an album in the end? Potential interview subjects – band members and associates, webmasters of long-running fan sites, mailing list moderators, music press members, EMI employees, computer/Internet historians, music press writers.

KID A LIVE(S): Following the leaking of the files, Kid A debuted at the top of the charts in the US and the UK upon release, as well as in many other countries. The band brought the now-familiar songs to America and Canada for a brief three-date tour which was also the end of Kid A’s promotional cycle, including a high-profile Saturday Night Live appearance with two songs that were not singles, even promotionally, and the previously mentioned Hollywood Bowl show, which will be discussed in detail. That would seem to be the ‘end’ of Kid A but what is its afterlife as a ‘classic’ album, or more? There’s the question of musical impact – the many bands and albums that followed where the combination of musical and thematic influences, especially in terms of the freer use of electronics, will be discussed. There’s the continuing popularity of the album among the fans, how certain songs have become established favorites in concert, how the ‘unfamiliar’ and seemingly shocking became ‘normal.’ Finally, there is the now-established model for how we generally encounter music – not street dates, but leak dates and more recently formal digital releases, where the physical product has been increasingly overtaken by the ephemeral, a situation highlighted (not prompted, it should be clear) by the fact that within months of Kid A’s release, Apple introduced the iPod. Potential interview subjects – band members and associates, webmasters of long-running fan sites, mailing list moderators, music press members, EMI employees, computer/Internet historians, music press writers.

CONCLUSION – A USER IN 2008: Mirroring the introduction as noted, this will discuss the day I watched Radiohead’s free broadcast of a Santa Barbara show at the conclusion of its In Rainbows tour in late August 2008 via my computer. It was the same desk and same chair I used back in 2000, the same computer monitor, but a different computer, sound system and Internet connection, something that was a ‘new’ mundane much like the experience of watching a web broadcast in general. Kid A songs were played along with plenty of other tracks, it was just part and parcel of the experience, as was the fact I was copying the broadcast onto my computer and the fact that clips appeared on YouTube almost immediately via other users. Kid A itself and everything about it was seemingly ancient history now, a time before iPods and iTunes and BitTorrents and questions about DRM and more besides – but how far away is it, as historical marker and as artistic creation? If, as the band claimed at the time of release, ‘Kid A’ him or herself was supposed to be the first cloned human baby, are we all now Kid As in a new century, replicating our experiences in a seemingly futile – and unnecessary? – search for what is ‘real’?

Currently chilling in SF for a bit…

…thus my relative silence here. Also it’s been a very full work week for me beforehand, so taking an overall break felt necessary. More to post and talk about after my return though; in the meantime there’s an interview up with Sebastien Grainger, formerly of Death From Above 1979 and now solo, that I did for the OC Weekly — though a direct link will have to wait for a bit since I’m using my iPhone here! More as it happens, in the meantime I’m off to enjoy the day!

“The Politics are Not Obvious” by David Lester

"The Politics Are Not Obvious"

“The politics are not obvious” is a painting I did that a banjo player bought after seeing it displayed in 2004, when Mecca Normal played a barber shop in Olympia and a bookshop in Seattle during a west coast tour. The man later sent me a cassette of his banjo playing. He recorded just this one copy to send to me. This was art. This was political.

Further information about David Lester and Mecca Normal can be found in this post.

Introducing a guest poster — David Lester of Mecca Normal

Quite honestly I never thought I would get to the stage where there’d be such a thing as a guest poster on my blog, but hey!

David Lester is one of the two members of Mecca Normal, a wonderful band from Canada currently celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. Jean Smith, the band’s other member, was one of the first people I ever interviewed formally as a music writer back in 1993, shortly before a great show she and David did on the UCI campus.

Mecca Normal’s anniversary tour is not simply one of music straight up — in keeping with their long-stated political and philosophical beliefs it’s much more akin to Ian Mackaye’s spoken-word tour earlier this year emphasizing involvement and awareness in general. To quote Jean from their tour site:

I wasn’t expecting to be impacted by the economic downturn when I was laid off from my retail job at an eco-friendly clothing store. The company decided to close the much-loved, quaint, creaky-old-floorboard store to concentrate on their wholesale and online business. As an almost fifty-year-old (single, debt-free) musician, novelist and painter, I am perhaps better equipped to deal with variations on the theme of employment and income, better than people who felt they had security. Rather than look for a new part time job, I’m hitting the road with Mecca Normal to present “How Art & Music Can Change the World” — an art exhibit, lecture and performance event in university and high school classrooms, bookstores, art galleries and music venues.

In cities where we don’t have a confirmed lecture yet, we want to connect with journalists, bloggers and radio people to inspire readers and listeners towards cultural activism — to fortify a new optimism that cultural activists can impact progressive social change.

David wrote me about providing occasional posts and artwork about a month back, and I admit to being quite initially surprised that my own small blog would be of interest to him. But I’m quite honored and flattered to be able to host some of his work. I’d certainly say David takes more of an active approach politically than I do in the end — I tend towards the discursive and reflective, for better or for worse. As a musician I quite admire, and as someone who like myself is careful not to let himself simply be defined just by music, he is someone who can and does show the importance of continual activity to best contribute to a wider world.

David’s contributions here will appear as he’d like to provide them! I’ll be putting up the first one shortly.

Kohlrabi with white sauce

Not bad, though I think I should have chopped the parsley more finely… Recipe from my CSA mailout; soy milk and creamer equivalents used (as well as margarine in place of butter):

4 kohlrabi bulbs, peeled and cubed
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons cream
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons white pepper
1/2 bunch fresh parsley, chopped

1. Place the kohlrabi and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a saucepan. Cover with water, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until kohlrabi can be pierced with a fork, but remains firm, about 5 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of cooking water. Place kohlrabi in a bowl, and cover.

2. Place the butter into the same saucepan, and melt over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, and stir until the mixture becomes paste-like and golden brown. Gradually whisk the milk and reserved cooking water from the kohlrabi into the flour mixture, stirring until thick and smooth. Stir in the cream, 1 teaspoon salt, nutmeg, white pepper, and parsley until well blended. Continue whisking until sauce thickens, then cook 10 minutes more. Stir in the kohlrabi, tossing to coat evenly with sauce.

Today on the Quietus, my interview with Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance

This interview was done a couple of months back around the time of the release of the RTZ comp but functions better now as more of a stand-alone collection of reflections on music, technology and art — and if that sounds too vague, trust me, this was some very thoughtful stuff. Part of it very much made me think of M. Matos’s Slow Listening Movement, but the issues touched on cover wider areas than that. To quote a section:

…the other day I came across the first Sun City Girls LP on a blog. It’s absolutely out of print, no way I will probably ever see it in a store or on eBay for a sum I could afford, so that left me with a clear conscience about downloading it for free. But I realized, how much pleasure would I get from it anyway? Why do that? Just to say I have it, that I have heard it? I decided not to download it because it would be much more enjoyable to at least share the experience with someone else. Maybe someone will play it for me one day. Until then, it’s just information.

And I do believe we are becoming addicted to information. You only need to look at those people who have hard drives filled with songs that they have never even listened to. They are not even collecting music. They are collecting information. And the more people become addicted to information and the faster they can obtain that information, the less they will be able to contemplate that information, and it is the contemplation of the information which makes it art.

And there’s much more besides, ranging from Paul Virilio to the value of community. Pleasure of an interview and I have to thank Ben again for taking the time and placing such thought into his answers.

Quinoa chard pilaf

Pretty tasty, added a bit of sriracha and pepper for bite. Recipe via my CSA mailout:

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups uncooked quinoa, rinsed
1 cup canned lentils, rinsed
8 ounces fresh mushrooms, chopped
1 quart vegetable broth
1 bunch Swiss chard, stems removed

1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Stir in the onion and garlic, and saute 5 minutes, until onion is tender. Mix in quinoa, lentils, and mushrooms. Pour in the broth. Cover, and cook 20 minutes.
2. Remove the pot from heat. Shred chard, and gently mix into the pot. Cover, and allow to sit 5 minutes, or until chard is wilted.

Watchmen — Post 5

Continued from here.

I thought this post would be longer than it will turn out to be, frankly. Part of me is tempted to set it aside and come back to it tomorrow when I’m feeling a little less cranky and slightly under the weather. At the same time, part of me wants to be done with talking about it for now — just to move on to other things and other thoughts. That being the case, this will be more of an abbreviated discussion of what I’ve been dancing around the whole time — namely, why I think Watchmen, for its flaws, some unavoidable, some all too consciously adding, is still worth seeing, is still something of note.

If you believe Geoff Boucher at the LA Times, who has been a major supporter of the film for months now, then this statement is of interest:

I think there’s a good chance that, like “Fight Club,” this movie will echo in pop culture for quite a while and become a landmark moment that will take on different contours when viewed in hindsight.

This is the point on which a lot of the positive criticism and discussion has been hinging — that’s all somehow a bold, dramatic, out of character step that’s been done by the Hollywood machine, something that ‘shouldn’t’ve’ been made that was, that questions expectations and so forth. It’s not mine though — frankly, I honestly don’t care about that aspect beyond doubting its applicability and relevance (and I was never much moved by Fight Club either). Any number of ‘bold artistic moves’ or the like have been hailed in all sorts of fields by all sorts of commentators with all kinds of vested interests — set that aside: does the film entertain and intrigue, at base? And does this film reach beyond its multitudinous drawbacks to do that?

I’d say it does, for three reasons:

First, it’s a slick piece of product. Which sounds dismissive but for all that there’s plenty about Snyder as a director that I clearly don’t like, he can put together a film with a team that knows what it’s doing on a variety of standpoints, production design, cinematography, costuming, special effects. If the film ultimately looks different from Dave Gibbons’ work in terms of color palette that is understandable in terms of both Gibbons’ own retrospective intent and in terms of current audience expectation — had Snyder gone the Gibbons route we would have ended up with something close to Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy to a large extent (reworking the Ozymandias costume alone was a life-saving move).

Second, aside from some notable goofs like the Richard Nixon performance, the casting for the major roles ranged from the serviceable to the stellar, and notably there’s been very little consensus over who the best actors were throughout. I’d like to think this is because there was enough of a range of performances that everyone found someone different to hold on to or to focus on throughout the film, and the variety of responses from friends and others has intrigued me. Even Malin Akerman’s performance as Laurie, which really bothered others and which I felt was there at best, has some strong defenders.

Perhaps unsurprisingly my two favorites were the two most grotesque characters in a broad sense, the faceless Rorschach and the godlike Dr. Manhattan. I realized in retrospect that what surprised me about both was that the voices used by their respective actors, Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Crudup, weren’t what I was expecting or necessarily hoping for at all, though what it was I was expecting was a bit unclear to myself. Yet both performances swiftly established themselves as crucial to the film and as perfectly suited for the narrative as performed and prevented, Rorschach’s quick, immediate snarl, Dr. Manhattan’s detached serenity. I’d go so far as to say that Crudup and his special effects team produced a collaboration that is the first real rival to Andy Serkis and Weta’s interpretation of Gollum for The Lord of the Rings, the slow float of particles in the air around Dr. Manhattan as key to his character as Crudup’s observational approach vocally.

Finally, most importantly, that changed ending — which wasn’t changed so much as, in the grand scheme of things, improved. The stunning “What in the WORLD?…” shock of seeing the looming mock-alien figure created by Ozymandias in the book, a psychedelic horror half Peter Max, half Lovecraft might be missing, but in reducing and simplifying the story on the one hand — the entire superstructure of the missing artists, the young psychic, Karnak’s Tibetan servants all reduced down to a team of earnest nuclear scientists assisting Ozymandias and unwittingly going to their deaths — and tying it in more fully to the larger scenario as created — Ozymandias’s dream to fully remove superheroes from the scene, above all else Dr. Manhattan, and to force unity and a stand-down among all the powers on earth on the brink of nuclear destruction — the film creates a more logical, more persuasive mechanism for Ozymandias to achieve his goals. If multiple cities, multiple millions, are destroyed worldwide, and if they are done so not by an unknown random force but by an all-too-well known figure who, for all anyone knows, might still strike again, then the fear and terror of the book’s population of the planet becomes all that much more so for the movie’s. It may not be faithful but it is not faithless to the larger themes — in fact, it is arguably an essential crystallization.

But perhaps it should be in keeping with my larger concerns about the film that even that final scene in Karnak eventually disappoints too, on different levels — the bloody end of Rorschach is as in the book, uncompromising maniacal morality against detached ‘what is best’ judgment, but to have Night Owl fall to his knees in an all too cliched spasm of agony, right down to the “NOOOOOOOO!,” was a headslapper. From there, the scene played out in ways that left me a little dizzy, especially in comparison to the equivalent moments in the comic but even on their own — Dr. Manhattan’s last kiss and beaming up, the music cue of Mozart’s Requiem Mass as Laurie and Dan leave Karnak…if the big change could be forgiven, in fact should be praised, these small changes made the end less than what it should have been, more of a sudden return-to-type I found hard to swallow.

Nonetheless, a bold move on the part of the filmmakers, that bigger change. It doesn’t necessarily forgive a lot of sins but it does ameliorate and counteract them, and in combination with ending just on the right note of uncertainty as the comic does, Rorschach’s journal perhaps to be shortly chosen for wider exposure, perhaps not, even the annoying ‘if only we were the Clash’ version of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” by My Chemical Romance was tolerable.

So I can sense why some outright love the film — there is something unusual in seeing this story presented, less in the way of backslapping for ‘boldness’ and more in the sense that sometimes nuance and hesitation really is the best way to end. In that, the filmmakers followed the book — and the book, however altered and compromised in other ways for this film, is a striking, unnerving and inventive story on its own. If the filmmakers didn’t have to put in the heavy labor to come up with the story, they did, at least, ensure that its lingering questions could still linger.

With that, I’ll just end with a clip of what’s already been making the rounds but deserves another view:

I admit, I wish they’d come up with a full fake episode.