Sunday, January 29, 2017

Pop Backstory Chapter 3: Uh...Minstrelsy, The First Real Pop (on All Levels)?

Yeah. Master race. Sure.
“The title of one study of early blackface minstrelsy captures in an arresting phrase the white entertainer’s relationship to blackness: ‘love and theft.’”
- Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History

With the intention of getting to the most uncomfortable stuff about “minstrelsy” right at the top, Jim Crow started as a stage character before lending the name to a collection of laws that shame the United States to this day. And, hey, the guy who came up with it, Thomas D. “Daddy” (why?) Rice? He’s from my hometown (stay classy, Cincinnati). Also, guy named George Washington Dixon worked under the stage name, “Zip Coon.” (This is his title track, apparently, and…harsh start…”Do Your Ears Hang Low”? There it is, a cherished tune from my childhood, birthed as a straight racist classic.)

It's uncomfortable to like at a creative form like minstrelsy – e.g. stage productions featuring white performers in blackface, which peaked in popularity in the two decades running up to our nation’s only true existential crisis (so far), the American Civil War (roughly, 1840 – 1860) – but context is always important. To quote Crawford:
“When characters of American Indian, Irish, or Scottish descent appeared on nineteenth-century stages, their stories were immediately ripe for elaboration because the audience expected them to behave in certain ways.”
Minstrelsy offered up stereotype as humor, basically, a long, proud tradition that limps on in (what feels like the dead form) “white people do this/black people do this” comedy. By way of live stage shows that followed a fairly standard pattern – “first a group of songs…then an ‘olio’ (hodgepodge) section including stump speeches and other novelties; and finally a large-scale burlesque skit set in the South” - minstrelsy makes a case as the first original and truly popular musical/entertainment form in American history, even as the sophistication of the material changed. As Crawford notes, it “proved to be the first musical genre to reverse the east-to-west transatlantic flow of performers to North America.” So, minstrelsy sounds like America’s first pop culture export. Yay?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 12: Silversun Pickups

Just my favorite image under "how Prozac feels."
I should like the Silversun Pickups (or is it just Silversun Pickups? Going that way). But I do not like Silversun Pickups, at least not a lot.

With them, we get into what I think is a fairly small subset in my collection, bands I picked up through Rock Band. Yes, the video game. Rock Band 2, in fact, as I've just learned. Also, my actual history with this band? It goes back only a couple years.

Of course “Lazy Eye” was the song. Near as I can tell that’s their biggest hit. I liked playing “Lazy Eye” because it had a kind of tricky, yet accessible, rhythm that you can master in about 10 tries (again, on Rock Band, in medium, but, once you nail that, you’re good for the expert pattern too; but I digress…into something at least mildly embarrassing. Look, even little doses of dopamine feel good. And, for what it’s worth, I think 10 tries to success for the average person makes for a good general ratio – certainly in video games, but maybe even in life. I haven’t really penciled that out, so, just a thought, but, yes, I think the bosses should get progressively harder in a certain kind of video game so that the last one almost brings the gamer to tears before he beats him/her/it/the life force; life, maybe less so; hard enough as is; but I digress; clearly).

Back to “Lazy Eye,” that came off of Carnavas, the band’s second album-esque offering. In the context of the band’s oeuvre, Carnavas (2006) all but tripped on the heels of the band’s album-esque debut, Pikul (2005), suggesting that the latter caught enough fire to make sense of pushing the rest of what the band carried in its back pocket out the door when people would notice. That could be why “Lazy Eye” gives the listener such a clear sense of what to expect from Silversun Pickups, and that holds at least through Swoon: a lot of strumming, a lot of it over a “wall of sound” throb, and that weird kind of distortion that doesn’t quite sound distorted. And the lead singer’s voice and style of singing. Which is fine. Just. Fine. At any rate, I generally like all those things, and I'm rarely all that particular on voices. So, why doesn't this band land for me?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Pop Backstory Chapter 2: The First American Music Mogul and the People's Hymns

The present-day equivalent of Lowell Mason.
I’ll be lumping a couple chapters from Richard Crawford’s America’s Musical Life: A History into this post. It’s a little light on the musical side of things, but, if this feels like sadism to anyone who reads it, the inverse is true for me. At any rate…

According to Crawford, Lowell Mason “seems to have been the first American musician who realized capital – profit in excess of expenditure and wages – from musical work.” A ton of that work had to do with teaching singing first in churches, then in communities, and finally, in Boston public schools - while also basing all that education on course materials he created (vertical integration, people). Mason succeeded by seizing one main chance after another. He built an empire on the tunebook that he compiled (but didn’t compose, only arranged) and sent into the world under the auspices of the Boston Handel and Haydn Society. In fact, he named his book the Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music and, in a twist that would utterly throw today's self-promoting culture, he didn’t make the name his name bigger than the title of the book. Remember, this came before anyone had made a living off music.

Mason’s steady, half-conscious takeover of musical education for contemporary Bostonians (and later New York) wanders a unique path. While this series is mostly about the music (honest), Mason deserves recognition as the American pioneer on the cash-money side of the industry, e.g., the side that most bedevils anyone after they've learned to play their instruments. With that, recognize him as you need to, damn or praise, but money helps where it doesn't hurt.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 11: Talib Kweli, or Right About When Things Get Tricky

Taste is, like, half the point. At most.

To post this series’ first existential question: how much time should I spend on a band/performer that I don’t like so much?

I came to Talib Kweli’s solo work because I heard (and loved) Black Star, his collaboration with Mos Def. I picked up a couple other signals (this piece of brilliance is the only one that comes to mind now, and, see below, but I’m pretty sure out of timeline) and, with that, Talib Kweli’s name possessed a couple positive associations.

I picked up Talib Kweli’s Beautiful Struggle 3-4 years ago (yeah, yeah, late bloomer) and, outside of Black Star, that’s probably as far back as I go on anything he touched. Also, had you asked even last week if I dug Talib Kweli’s work, I would have ranked him high. But, as it happens, I wrote in that vote without doing the homework…

Here’s where I get in my head a little, not to monkey around in my psyche, but because I think a lot of people like or dislike one thing or another, but without thinking much about how they separate (alleged) wheat from (alleged) chaff. And those parentheticals are less a copout than to acknowledge the same kind of uncomfortable truth that undermines the whole goddamn wine-tasting empire: on the pop level, it’s all but totally subjective. Seriously. Also, this is a meditation on the difference between what you like (Talib Kweli) and what you love (big list).

Reviewing all this taught what could be a lesson in how a brain edits information – e.g., I like Talib Kweli because Black Star, and because “The Actual” (link above; and, shit, here), and I can recall a couple good songs on Beautiful Struggle, therefore I’m a fan of Talib Kweli.

And there’s another wrinkle: I’m good with Talib Kweli. I like his politics, I believe it’s possible that he brought a key element to Black Star, one whose absence I might feel when (or if) I go deep on Mos Def’s (now, Yasiin Bey) oeuvre, and I think that, across his three solo albums that I explored I found some damn good songs. I also found songs that sound like generic (lazy?) club-bangers to me, plus a bunch that felt similarly flaccid (maybe due to where he fit in my musical universe going in?). But even that slips around the heart of the disconnect.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Pop Backstory Chapter 1: Broadside Ballads and the Birth of American Music

Instant classic of its age...
Some controversy surrounds the question of who was the first American to “produce a Musical Composition.” A guy named Frances Hopkinson claimed the honor, but a music historian of some import named Oscar G. Sonneck unearthed a second candidate in James Lyon. Sonneck went with Hopkinson in the end (composition titled “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free”), but still others noted the year of composition (1759) and argued that American, as a nationality, can’t predate America (touche) and that brings in another work by Hopkinson (“Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano”), written 1788, as the first “American” work. The credit still attaches, just for a different song.

Very few Americans had access to music back then, classical or otherwise. Thomas Jefferson reportedly lamented the challenges of scaring up a band in the wilds of Virginia, and he was a big fan of music (“the favorite passion of [his] soul”). Amateur enthusiasts made do, playing mostly in the home and with whomever came to hand; scaling up was hard and musical education, while possible, cost not just real money, but required the correct address. Almost all the music still came from the Old Country, not the States, and (as noted above) original composition took a century and two-thirds to happen. Even then, it was never the rage.

It was another borrowed form that seems closest to the first truly “popular music” to take hold in the States. Crawford groups them under the name/genre “broadside ballads,” than tales of adventure (and sometimes bastardry) sung over existing, familiar tunes. Different poems often borrowed the same tune, too: for instance, both “The Children in the Woods” and “Chevy Chase” (not a typo) could play over the tune of "Ponder Well," from a production called The Beggar’s Opera. (That's the whole thing, btw; buckle up.)  (Also, The Beggar’s Opera actually comes up a lot, see “Our Polly Is a Sad Slut,” which played over “The Lawyer’s Pedigree”). The themes vary quite a bit – e.g., “Chevy Chase” records a fateful day of "battle" among the Rich and the Spoiled, while “The Children in the Woods” tells a tale of vulnerable children and a treacherous relative. (Another classic, and a charmer, “The Spanish Lady” also shows up in Richard Crawford’s book).

Monday, January 16, 2017

Pop Backstory: A Hawaiian Prelude

There's a Hawaiian honky-tonk image, but...
Welcome to this first post in a personal history of American popular music. Decided to stick with a simple title for the series (e.g., “Pop History”) because all my other titles ran the gamut between hokey to stupid. As noted in the introductory post to Pop History, I want to begin the project by reading and relating what I learn by reading America’s Musical Life: A History, by Richard Crawford. After that, I’ll dig through Wikipedia’s sprawling, cross-referenced pages until I get to some satisfactory end. That’s months, if not years away. Thought it appropriate to start with something of a cautionary tale.

When I read Wikipedia’s History of the United States, I was struck by how often the author(s) brought up Hawaiian music (enough to make me wonder whether he (or they) didn't live in Honolulu). A quick recount yielded, he/they made only six references – and one of them just as a category label – but that still seemed out-sized given a personal belief that Hawaiian music started and ended with songs like “Aloha ‘Oe” (you can find a link to some audio at the top right of that page) and, when it came to mainstream pop, the borrowings came out sounding like some sappy Andy Williams bastardization (example).

Oh, and fun detail, the last queen of Hawaii wrote “Aloha ‘Oe."

Wikipedia’s entry ("Music of Hawaii") disabused that blinkered view within the first paragraph. (And it only now just occurred to me that surf could have originated in Hawaii (no? No. Huh. Seemed like a natural fit)). The actual story packs a still bigger “wow/weird” factor. The Hawaiians invented not just the steel/slide guitar technique, but the popularity of the Hawaiian sound prompted the development of the first electric guitar. And to further demonstrate the guitar-madness among Hawaiians, they also developed a technique called slack-key guitar. To reuse a word, that’s an out-sized pop culture footprint for a handful of small islands in the middle of the planet's biggest ocean.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 10: The Coup, a True Revolution

What revolutions share with apocalypses.

There was a time not so long ago – right around 2012, I believe – when Pitchfork’s website made downloadable mp3’s available on a semi-regular basis. 2012 was also the year that The Coup put out their last album, Sorry to Bother You, and I’m guessing that’s how I found them.

Turns out they started way back in 1991 with an EP appropriately titled, The EP (and that choice suits The Coup, based on my still limited experience), and that puts 22 years between their debut and the time I caught wind of ‘em. And I literally heard Sorry to Bother You for the first time, uh, today. Somehow, out of all the stuff they put out, and after downloading a track by them from Pitchfork (since lost in the mists of time; honestly, couldn’t tell you what it was; you can waterboard me, but you’ll get nothing), I somehow wound up owning just one album by The Coup, and that came out 11 years prior to the first time I heard them. That would be Party Time.

I’m linking to their discography here, and I’d encourage absolutely anyone to dive in. By browsing The Coup’s Wikipedia page, I learned that someone somewhere (Dusted magazine, as it happens; Top 5 is a little dated, but I see a 2017 reference in there) thought enough of their work to dub their Steal This Album the best bit of hip-hop artistry from the 90s. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, so I’ll say one thing and leave it there: The Coup can carry that weight many, many miles. And that’s with Steal This Album being one of two from the oeuvre that I skipped during my (basically crash) education. Dammit. (I’ll get to it; life-long learner.)

With an eye to toning down the essential masochism of this project, I’m stepping back from even considering hearing every single song by the artists I’m reviewing. A goal will always guide me, even if it’s a loose one, but this time, with Party Time sort nestled in the middle of The Coup’s body of work, I took the tack of comparing their earliest work (Kill My Landlord and Genocide & Juice) against their most recent stuff (again, Sorry to Bother You). I’ll get to that, but I want to start with the album I know best, Party Time.

If you’re looking for an entrĂ©e into The Coup’s style and sensibility, I’d go with “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO”: the title has res ipsa loquitur written all over it but, for me, it’s a little light on the funk vibe that either defines The Coup, or that I like most in what they do. I guess that suggests that I most associate The Coup with their radical (or, better, honest) politics. And, now, to step out of Party Time, I’d pair “Not Yet Free” and “The Coup” from Kill My Landlord (and, possibly, The EP) as stand-out examples of The Coup’s politics and, better still, their sound when they just…fucking nail it, for me. “The Coup,” especially, is beautiful rippling thing. They have a couple songs that read closer to “straight hip hop” to me – “The Name Game” and “The Gods ofScience” come to mind (from Genocide & Juice and Sorry to Bother You, respectively) – but The Coup’s musicality (that word again) is what hits me with them. And, whoops, I was supposed to be talking Party Time. Party Time, Party Time, Party Time…

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Music Project Continues: Climbing the Big Wall of Context

Some of them should be cute, so that we can carry on.

I’ve been posting on music for a while, but on a personal, almost too personal, level (look, I chose the name for this site for a reason), via the One Last Pick Thru the Bins series (sidebar links pending; plus sample). The word “series” dresses it up a bit, because it’s just a tour through the audio files on my computer, aka a review of all the music I’ve collected through my lifetime, thoughts on what inspired the choices, plus what I’m guessing is pretty goddamn uneven thoughts on each of the acts.

To cover the basics, though, I’m hyper attuned to lyrics, and I mean that up to and including the fact that any instrumental that appeals to me is a rare one. I don’t stray that far – as in, ever – from popular music, and even virtually all of that comes from English-speaking parts of the West. (e.g., my tastes only aspire to “eclectic” in the context of a very, very small pond). I think most Western kids (and old farts) only track American pop, so that doesn’t read like an actual fault.

Even my “pop” bandwidth is a little narrow, in that I generally prefer (to coin some useful categories) “expression” over “performance.” By that I mean, I like musical acts where the artist composes, sings and, best case, performs his/her songs. That kind of work just strikes me as more personal, immediate, even intimate in some settings. Performance, meanwhile, is what you get, not just with Britney Spears (sorry, stupid-old reference; trying again), Ariana Grande, or Taylor Swift…uh, sorry, I have two girls, so most points of reference go to female performers, but neither kid really likes those…never mind. At any rate, the majority of contemporary pure “pop” acts perform songs written by other people – a lot of ‘em Swedes for some damn reason (and that's a great book) – and, for the same reason that a play doesn’t (often) feel like real life, the whole thing feels more like “entertainment widget” than someone baring something unsightly onstage. Of which, my favorite. Some artists do, however, come close to selling performance as expression, but, Jesus Christ, enough about me.

Friday, January 6, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Volume 9: The Fluid, The Great Grunge Act You Never Heard

Look, cool was different back was very singer/songwriter.

Unlike previous posts, I’m going pure nostalgia on this one (sensing a theme tonight?).

I only saw The Fluid once, and even then, I only half saw them. They were my favorite band at the time, or one of ‘em, but I had to work the one night they came to Seattle. Still, I bombed down from Capitol Hill to the OK Hotel immediately after my shift and loitered around the venue until I found I could hear at least some of their set out a back door cracked open to let out the heat. Some guy, either roadie or employee of the OK, let me hang around back and, as they wound down their set, he eventually let me in. It was a very 19-year-old experience, a time when the line between devotion and desperation blurred all over my life. Regardless, I didn’t smell worse than anyone else by the time I got in there, in spite of closing down a…shit, where was I working then?

As much as I loved the band, I don’t think I bought anything by The Fluid till I bought the vinyl for their Roadmouth LP about a decade later (this would be the early 2000s). At least a half dozen friends owned both Roadmouth and the Glue EP, so I could hear them as close to on demand as any sensible person would want. They put out something else while the iron was still hot, but, from what I remember, too many people described the album as “too close to metal,” a distinction that mattered at the time (e.g., close to the glam-rock era; look, I know, but, when you’re young, pointless distinctions are actual distinctions). Based on what I’m seeing on The Fluid’s Wikipedia page, I’m guessing that outing went by Purplemetalflakemusic, but I’ll never know because, 1) Spotify doesn’t acknowledge that The Fluid ever existed, and, 2) I have way too much work left on this project to dig that album out of Youtube, never mind a record store.

So, yeah, this will be the first time in this entire project where I don’t even attempt to go beyond what I have personally. And even there, it gets weird…