Beer and Pavement

2013: What happened?

Posted in Beer, Life, Live, Meta, Mikkeller, Records by SM on December 31, 2013

2013 Calendar from Never Sleeping

I have been absent from this blog and blogging in general. Honestly, I thought I was done with it. Life happened and time became scarce. It was time to move on…

…or so I thought.

Life happened in 2013 and sometimes there’s just no room for such frivolities like keeping a public journal or pretending to be a journalist. This is the year I started a PhD program – part-time, but a PhD nonetheless. It’s also the year we learned that we would be expecting another child around mid-February (2 months to go!). Throw on top of that a promotion to a supervisory role and a major expansion to our organization and you have a pretty busy year.

Normally, this hasn’t stopped me from writing. However, I needed to step back for a bit. This blogging thing gets in the way of living now and again. A break was in order. So, 2013 is pretty lame as far as blogging goes.

So, I’m thinking about doing this all again. Why? I don’t really know. It’s just an itch that needs to be scratched, I guess. I’m promising nothing. I won’t promise a certain quantity or quality of posts. I’m not promising anything in regards to topics. You know what I like. so, you can reasonably expect more of the same… for the most part.

I still listen to music. I have a favorites list for 2013, of course. It felt weird not tow write up a blog post on the subject, so I’ll include a bit about it. First of all, I won’t rank my favorites. I’ll just give you ten records you should check out.

The year was filled with old favorites as well as a running theme in my musical choices. Yo La Tengo released their best record in years with Fade. Especially amazing is the track “I’ll Be Around.” Another year and another Arcade Fire makes my year-end list. Unlike past releases, Reflektor is low on the thematic end, but it’s ueber-fresh. Kurt Vile’s Walkin on a Pretty Daze is my favorite KV record so far. Bill Callahan is Bill Callahan. Dream River is just another addition to what is becoming the best collection of songwriting in the modern indie era or something like that. I saw Thao Nguyen and her band The Get Down Stay Down earlier this year put on one of the best shows I’ve seen in Middle Missouri. Her record We the Common didn’t hurt either. The Chronicles of Marnia by Marnie Stern was a surprising discovery that fulfills my guitar noodling needs for another calendar year.

Then, there’s a list of records that continues a trend in my listening habits of recent years: grrl rock bands that sound like they’re straight out of 1995. Waxahatchee might be my most-listened to record of 2013. It sounds like my entire college years as seen through a small town lesbian. (I have no idea whether or not Katie Crutchfield is gay, nor do I care. I just imagine the main character in her songs to be this angst-ridden lesbian from 1994. It helps with the narrative, but it doesn’t have to be true.) Scout Niblett’s “Gun” was one of those songs I played over and over. The rest of the record isn’t filled with scrubs either. Radical Dads was a surprise find, but pretty aggressive in that 1994 kind of way. Marnie Stern is a one-womyn Van Halen. Lady and the Lamb was a last-second addition to the list, but Ripley Pine is certainly worth your time.

Of course, there are others that won’t make my list, but there always are. There are other lists I could add to this one, but I’ll just conclude with a list of memorable things and events from the year that saw me lose my blogging groove only to find it once more…

  • My beer fandom has faded a bit, but I’ve had some outstanding brews this year. Follow me at Untappd.
  • I went to Copenhagen and spent lots of time drinking my way through Mikkeller‘s lineup.
  • I watched a lot of TV. The League, Walking Dead, and Girls are highlights.
  • I don’t read enough books or watch enough films.
  • I saw Jeff Mangum perform twice, once with the rest of Neutral Milk Hotel and once solo.
  • I don’t remember whether or not I mentioned this, but we found out earlier this year that my partner is pregnant. Child 2 arrives in mid-to-late February.

Here’s to a fruitful 2014. I hope you all are well. Peace.

Opinions are like…

Posted in Manifesto by SM on February 16, 2011

…blogs. Everyone has one. Right?

The thing I love about music is that two people of basically the same intellect and even similar tastes can have completely different opinions about a band or album. I suppose that goes for any kind of art or media, but people don’t talk about paintings or sitcoms the way they talk about music. It can get heated, almost to the point of exchanged blows, but we can somehow forget everything once a song comes on we agree upon.

The other day, someone posted somewhere that Radiohead was set to release an album. Since I haven’t enjoyed much of anything Radiohead’s produced in the last decade, my reaction was “meh.” So, I posted the provocative question: Is Radiohead still relevant? Some said no; others said yes. But a few others got sort of pissed about it. The funny thing is that I see eye-to-eye with a lot of people on either side of this Radiohead split.

You’d think that the polarization of Radiohead would mean that we don’t agree on any kind of music and hate each other’s guts. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. There’s something that can be said about a thing like music that can simultaneously divide and bring together. I think it’s why I like to talk music more than almost anything else.

Honestly, I don’t really care if people feel the same way about Radiohead as I do. They apparently are relevant as many people still go apeshit with every new release. Just because they’re not relevant to me doesn’t mean they’re not relevant at all.

To further my point, in case you hadn’t heard, Arcade Fire won the Grammy for album of the year. This is being seen in several ways. First, there are the opinions I’ll ignore. Those are the ones who dismiss The Suburbs because they have no idea what it is and the others who actually think Eminem was robbed. The other two camps see things a bit differently. Some are proclaiming this to be indie rock’s big breakthrough, while others see it as proof of The Suburbs inherent faults.

For those who celebrate this achievement, they realize that Arcade Fire is doing things no other indie has ever done. They are competing with the big boys of rock music from not-exactly-rock-mecca of Montreal and the tiny indie label Merge. Granted, Merge has been around for a while, but it’s not a huge label that has loads of money. They have a unique deal with artists that allows the artists more say and more pay. No major would operate the way Merge does. Of course, no major label puts out as much good music as Merge does. Funny thing is, Merge’s decidedly artist-centric approach has helped them outlast many majors. The Suburbs are the culmination of that work and all of indie rock should relish in the achievement.

My brother said something about how he never thought he’d see anything like that in his lifetime. The Grammys are shill for the industry or at least its corporate overlords. So, it’s unthinkable that a band on an indie could ever win one a Grammy, and not just any Grammy, Arcade Fire won album of the year. That’s the Grammy.

However, some would point to the fact that the Grammys themselves haven’t been relevant for…well…ever. Grammys have generally missed the mark every time. Even this Arcade Fire album is not the band’s best. Had the Grammys really been cutting edge, they would have given best album to Arcade Fire for Funeral. The Grammy foundation or committee or whatever they are really don’t understand much of the music they honor. So, is it really a big deal that Arcade Fire won?

Well, of course it is a big deal. It’s just not a big deal to everyone.

I remember when Beck beat out Springsteen and Sting for best male performance for his now-classic Odelay. Although Beck wasn’t on an indie (at least not for this release), it was an amazing upset to unseat two of the biggest names in music. It was a moment when alternative music (indie rock with loads of cash) was the equivalent of the typical corporate junk that dominated the Grammys year after year, category after category. Maybe you liked One Foot in the Grave better, but Odelay winning that award was a big deal for non-mainstream music.

The point is that Radiohead and Arcade Fire are worthy bands. They’re both relevant. It’s cool that I write about Pavement or Archers of Loaf so much. We think about and care for the music and that’s what matters. Granted, I’m biased toward a certain kind of music, but I’ll listen if you want to talk about why you love Lady GaGa or Phish or whatever. I can appreciate your fondness for a band or musician. I just might not agree and there’s room for that in this space.

Sorry, I’m rambling away from the message.

What I know that we can all agree upon is that music is one of those things in life we can all agree to disagree. And that’s great. Maybe you never grew out of Radiohead. Don’t worry. I never grew out of Pavement. I loved The Suburbs. You haven’t like anything they’ve done since Funeral. All of that is cool. There are as many ways to look at music as there are people or at least blogs.

(Speaking of obsessing over a band no one really likes, my series on the Archers of Loaf oeuvre will continue Friday.)

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Making Lists

Posted in Records by SM on November 30, 2010

When a blogger is struggling for material[1], his best friend is the list. Just come up with a list of best/worst of or whatever, and you’re bound to produce a coherent message and definitive opinion surely to strike up a conversation[2]. When they’re good, the comments fill, Facebook notes are written in response, and traffic numbers spike. Even when the list is dumb or lame, there is sure to be no less than five comments[3].

The list is my slump-buster[4] as it were. I haven’t posted in over two weeks for various reasons. Someone contacted me and asked me to post a top-ten records of the year. So, I’m working on that. When we’re all done, a bunch of us will post it on Tumblr or something. In the meantime, I have a list to create.

Making a fine, thought-provoking list requires several things. First, there’s the preliminary list off the top of your head. If you can just think up items to include on a list without any reference, said items probably deserve at least some consideration. Of course, something will be left off and it behooves the list-maker to search out some forgotten gems before submitting the final draft.

As mentioned above, I’m sorting out my list of top ten albums of the year[5]. In the past, I’ve asked others to make my lists or have written lists for the number of days in December and beyond. Sticking to ten requires commitment and no fudging. I will pick ten, no more or no less. It will be ten definitive albums for 2010. Of course, one will have to take this list into context. I am a working stiff in his mid-thirties with a two-year-old[6]. So, my scope is a bit limited despite my credit card debt and hours logged at P4k this year. That said, here’s the preliminary list with which I’m working, eventually to chisel down to ten. Let me know where I’m going wrong and what’s missing[7].

The Walkmen’s Lisbon was not an obvious choice on first listen, but it has grown on me. No other band sounds like mid-August quite like the Walkmen do on their last two albums. Hazy evenings. Crickets. Drinks on the deck. I am a bit biased when it comes to this band[8], but they are incapable of making a bad record.

Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest has honestly not received the attention it probably deserves, so this one is still under review. However, knowing Bradford Cox’s typical output, I will find something that will sneak Halcyon Digest into the top-ten.

Pavement didn’t release a proper album of new tracks this year. What they did do is answer my prayers with a reunion tour and released maybe the single greatest best-of album I’ve ever heard[9]. Besides, how could I leave my favorite band off the list, especially with them in the name of this blog?

Arcade Fire’s Suburbs is the safe call, but is it too safe? This album is solid from front to back and possibly the group’s most complete effort thus far. Sure, it doesn’t have the hits like on Funeral or the complimentary pieces of Neon Bible, but it is something neither of those albums could be. Sometimes, the most obvious pick for a top-10 list is the best one.

Let’s Wrestle snuck into my consciousness through a compilation created by my sister for my daughter[10]. That and their name comes from a Joan of Arc line I can’t believe I haven’t tattooed on my arm yet[11] makes them all the more enticing. In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s is maybe my surprise hit of the year as I had discarded any pop-punk from my collection long ago. It’s juvenile and poppy, but I love it. It’s easily my sing-along album of the year.

The Tallest Man on Earth just sounds like Dylan if he were still around[12]. The Wild Hunt is something fresh, something new in a very familiar package of rhyme, grainy vocals, and acoustic gee-tar. That’s hard to do and should be appreciated whenever we hear it.

Liars’ Sisterworld is dark and brooding and somehow punk. I can only listen to this record once in a while, because it angers me so. It’s good to reserve a place at the table for such a record.

Broken Social Scene disappointed some with Forgiveness Rock Record. For me, the band has taken on a new persona after seeing them a couple of times in the past couple of years. Before that, they were always a studio band for me. Then, once I put a face to the group, I began to hear them more sonically. This is the record that brings the live show to fruition. It’s their Wilco album[13].

Real Estate’s self-titled debut sat on my shelf for a bit, but then I heard the band live and gave them another chance. It’s a nice gem among the P4k’d crap. I don’t know that it will make the final 10, but it deserves a mention. Update – I just realized Real Estate was released last year. So, I only have to eliminate nine records.

Wolf Parade’s Expo 86 is another one of those albums that disappoints, but I’m not entirely sure why. It’s more complete, coherent than previous releases and therefore is often seen as boring or conventional. I don’t know how long it will stand the test of time, but it’s here, on this list for a good reason.

Best Coast gets ripped daily on Hipster Runoff. So, I was ready to write them off before even listening to a single track. Then, I caught them live. This is a nice record that fits well between my stacks of mid-nineties indie rock[14].

Beach House lost me with their first two records and I didn’t want to bother with this one, but that was my problem. Again, seeing the band live helped me get them and for that I’m thankful. There’s not a bad track on this record. That’s just not done anymore.

Here We Go Magic was suggested to me and I listened. I listened a lot, but then I became busy with other records. So, before this one makes the list or doesn’t, I will have to listen to it again[15].

Los Campesinos!’s Romance Is Boring is pretty fun and probably deserves a spot next to Let’s Wrestle. It’s good that the Brits[16] are listening to our indie rock and doing all they can to replicate it. This has worked out well for them (the British) in the past (see The Beatles, Rolling Stones).

The Soft Pack used to be Muslims before converting[17]. The result was a pretty angry record with intense focus and drive. The anger is felt and the focus and drive carry the record from start to finish. I don’t know that it will make the final ten, but it’s good enough to be considered.

The National’s High Violet is either the year’s best record or the best Coldplay record. I can’t decide.

Quasi is the Rodney Dangerfield of indie bands, make that indie super bands. American Gong will make no one’s best of list and that’s a shame. For that reason, it may have to make mine.

Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz is all I listen to at the moment. For that reason, it deserves consideration. Also for that reason, I need to step away to see if I’ll feel that way forever.

Spoon’s Transference is not the greatest Spoon record ever. Of course, 99% of the bands out there would love to make an album this good. I will have to think long and hard about this one[18]. I may leave it off, because, well, I have to leave something out.

Corin Tucker Band is a bit of a surprise in several ways. First, I never thought Tucker would do a solo project outside of parenting and whatever she currently does for a living[19]. Second, this record is so not a Sleater-Kinney-light record. Third, Corin Tucker can write a good song. I don’t know why all this surprised me. I think I just saw Tucker as a piece in Sleater-Kinney, something that was greater than its parts. I need to listen some more, but this album is streaking down the stretch.

A conversation on Facebook has me considering The Badus Band, Disappears, Weekend, Scarecrow Frequency, Jim O’Rourke, Born Ruffians, Tame Impala, Screaming Females, and Double Dagger. However, I doubt I will have time nor money to listen to all of those releases before my final list “goes to press”. So, in the meantime, comment on what you see here. Am I missing something? Am I way off on something? What should my final ten look like?

As always, comments are welcome and the footnotes explain so much more about my thinking.

1Which for me is a lot. I haven’t finished a post here in over two weeks. And often when I do publish a post, it’s unfinished.
2However, I recognize how superficial a list can be. I hate that Rolling Stone just does lists now, lists that they often re-remember by conveniently forgetting that they panned Smells Like Teen Spirit or whatever. The list lacks depth, but it opens the door for more interesting discussion. Hell, I’m writing a list that will lead to another list.
3Even if a third of the comments are mine and another third happen on Facebook or Twitter. I suspect three of you (or hopefully more) will comment here; I’ll respond twice; and one or two of my FB friends who hate to comment on this blog will comment there.
4Typically, the term “slump-buster” is reserved for that one-night stand that ends a long slump without getting any action. Since I blog and am happily married, this is my slump-buster. I wonder how many hits I’ll get for using the term “slump-buster”?
5There will be a beer angle as well, just not a separate best of 2010 beer list. It feels forced to do both. Besides, I have a great idea for working in some great beers to this list.
6Oddly, she used to sleep a lot more and I had more time for blogging. Now, night time is a full-on major undertaking and I’m too exhausted to write.
7However, as will be explained later in this post (above the footnotes), I don’t have time nor money to listen to all of your suggestions. So, it may be best to just comment on what’s here and not much that isn’t.
8To some, this will sound blasphemous, but The Walkmen are my new Pavement. I haven’t worked out exactly why, but they do for me what Pavement once did and I suspect they will have the same staying power when I’m old and gray. This is surely a post to come.
9I’ve noticed that seeing a band live and in support of a current release often elevates said release in my estimation of its greatness. Half of these records would never be on my radar without seeing the bands live. Something can be said for that. I guess I just did.
10Who has impeccable taste for a two-year-old.
11First, I said “yet”. Second, that would have been cool/sexy when I was a skinny college kid with an indie addiction. Now, it’s probably just creepy.
12Such a lazy comparison, but every time I put this record on, someone inevitably makes the Dylan comparison. It’s more in the aesthetic than in the message, but it’s apt.
13Which means that everything they release from here on out will suck in that sort of benign way and invite douche-bags in hats and granolas to dance drunkenly in endless circles in whichever arena they choose to play next.
14This has been an interesting time to listen to all these “new” bands that just sound like the bands I saw in clubs 15 or so years ago. It’s been nice to hear a familiar aesthetic in new music.
15And after working on all these stupid footnotes, I have had a chance to listen again. It really is a good, varied record. Considering it for the list as I type this.
16I think they’re actually Welsh, so “Brits” is not meant as an insult if it is an insult.
17It was just a name change.
18Someone described it as “Pop songs stripped to the core and made weird.” This simple phrase paints Transference in a new light for me. There is much about which to think.
19Because there is no way she’s living off Sleater-Kinney royalties, unless they made a shit-ton of money opening for Pearl Jam a few years back.

This is not a record review

Posted in Records by SM on August 17, 2010

So, I’ve been working on this post for a while. It’s not taking so long because I’m crafting it. Rather, it’s taking so long because I haven’t had time to work on it. In the meantime, there have been ideas for posts pass me by. So, I’m publishing this thing without hyperlinks, pics, or footnotes. Agree with me. Tell me where I’m wrong. Just don’t hold me to any standard set on this blog in previous posts.

Or at least this is not one I should have written weeks ago. I mean, record reviews are dead, right? No one reads them anymore. And when they’re written, they say very little about the music. Besides, we all just check the number or count the stars. Who has time to see if someone else thinks you should buy the record? Buy it or don’t. We don’t need record reviews and we sure as hell shouldn’t write them.

I used to buy records based on what was written in the back of a Rolling Stone or Spin. And when I bought the record without reading a single review, I’d sometimes read the reviewer’s take after the fact to see if at least one person heard it the way I did. I’d often find a disconnect and simply move on to another source of reviews that was closer to my own opinions and tastes. My infatuation with a magazine’s record reviews never lasted long. I eventually turned to online sources for reviews such as Pitchfork, but even that was short-lived.

And like assholes, we all started our own blogs where we pushed our own reviews onto the world. So, now, instead of less record reviews through which to sort, there are now thousands or even millions more. Plus, we had to consider our own reviews. What would my blog say about this band? What will my Facebook status say tomorrow about this record? The review has taken over.

But I don’t like to look at it that way.

The way I see it is that we now have a new platform to discuss art, especially music. No longer do I have to take it from a professional journalist or a punk at P4k. Hell, I don’t even have to blindly accept what a friend has to say in his/her blog post. At the least, I can look elsewhere or leave a comment. At the most, I can publish my own thoughts. Either way, what is created in this (cyber)space is a forum for discussion. No longer is it a one-way distribution. The exchange comes from multiple directions and is inclusive. Is this still a review? I don’t know, but it’s certainly more interesting.

I’m not going to review Arcade Fire’s newest record, The Suburbs. I’m not going to tell you why it’s great or where it falls short. In the end, you’ll make up your own mind. You’ll buy it or not. It doesn’t make any difference to me.

Besides, is it really possible to judge an Arcade Fire album fairly these days? With the president set by “Funeral”, it’s hard to imagine any album could measure up. When I saw Pitchfork’s review, reading just the score as I do these days, I was impressed with its showing of 8.6. Then I read this take and questioned the entire thing, album and review.

But who really cares?

When one plays The Suburbs, it is instantly clear that Win Butler and co. have written their own review. You see, the album isn’t literally about the suburbs. The suburbs are a metaphor for succeeding, for making it. There was a time when every working stiff’s dream was to make enough money to house his family in the ‘burbs. Sure, it was the pinnacle of nuclear familial status, but there was also a certain sense of selling out. Arcade Fire has to deal with that sort of quandary as well.

The opening title track lets the listener know right away that this is not your youth’s Arcade Fire. It’s a mature pop sound that either invites or turns you off. No matter, because this intro and the following tracks of synth-lite pop and Boss-centric dramatics is just the aesthetics, something Arcade Fire used to use like few others ever could. This pop sheen is just a fresh coat of paint or new siding to cover the charm of uncertainty below.

What Arcade Fire does with the content of their latest album is break down how said record will be perceived, how they will be perceived. The band has written the review for us. There’s no need to write our own or give any credence to Rolling Stone‘s take. The band tells you exactly what to make of The Suburbs throughout the record.

The death of anything punk, alternative, or indie is proclaimed over a pop piano playing of what can only be described as the band’s Billy Joel moment. The song breaks down the divisions of culture created in the 70’s at the hands of Sex Pistols and Stooges, longing for the time to just simply enjoy life and art without the inevitable judgment of hipsters and bloggers. This is the first time Arcade Fire rejects youth, something I never thought I’d hear them do.

The second track, “Ready to Start,” continues to toy with youthful cynicism and shows us a band that is both aware of what it’s doing and unconcerned with what you think of it. “Modern Man” asserts Arcade Fire’s rightful place in (modern) dad-rock, albeit rather cool dad-rock. You know, it’s touch being a middle-aged white dude, living in the suburbs and all that. [winking emoticon here] If anything, these two tracks hint at the themes and aesthetics to come.

A full rejection of hipsterdom comes next, but it’s more than what Pitchfork says it is. “Rococo” references a couple of important cultural moments. The first of these moments is also known as “late Baroque”, possibly a response to the band’s silly and somewhat lazy label of “Baroque pop” or simply an assertion of their artistic transition into something different. The original Rococo movement was a significant transition in European culture. The “other” Rococo was a band in the midst of the 70’s punk and progressive rock scenes. Because of either timing, energy, or a combination of the two, Rococo were often lumped in with the The Clash and Sex Pistols. However, they were very different from the punk rock of the day. Both of these meanings hint at something way deeper to the Arcade Fire sound than simply dissing some hipsters.

“Empty Room” certainly starts out like your typical Arcade Fire track with the strings and anthemic guitar feedback. The track celebrates the band’s breaking from their aesthetic shackles, proclaiming, “When I’m by myself, I can be myself,” a typical sentiment from anyone trying so hard to not be what everyone proclaims them to be.

In “City with No Children”, the band provides another take on the youthful perspective of their music. With the amount of information available to kids, their primary audience, the band sadly sees its listeners as cynics well before they should be. The result is that they can’t return to their unknown origins. There is no way this record will be judged on its own merit. There will always be the Arcade Fire mystique created by classic debuts, Pitchfork 10’s, and YouTube videos of the band playing among their fans.

Despite all the assertions of change in Win Butler’s voice, “Half Light I” assures the listener that this is still the same old Arcade Fire you’ve grown to love. They’re just expanding, taking on another appearance in the half light. The abrupt shift in aesthetics of The Suburbs is sort of like a terror twilight, that moment before the sun goes down when things just feel ominous. Interestingly, another reference to the Rococo period happens as the band sings, “They hide the ocean in a shell,” as artists of the time used shells as a popular motif for their designs.

In the track’s continuation, “Half Light II,” Arcade Fire contemplates their shift and development as a band. It’s a track that moves them forward as they grasp at whatever magic brought them together. Also, the aesthetics provided some huge 80’s synthesizers pull the listener to go along with this change.

“Suburban War” is where Arcade Fire lets you go your merry way in case you’ve given up on them at this point. They realize you’ve grown apart from them or vice versa. Here’s where the metaphor of the suburbs as success, particularly in the music industry, hit hardest as sides are chosen, divided by almost exclusively by musical tastes.

And as the band came to terms with this shift and the inevitable loss of a portion of their audience, they set out to write a record. “Month of May” takes the listener to the recording process. The band made their commitment to record this album in an uncompromising style. Cynicism and apathy are called out again (“The kids are all standing with their arms folded tight”) as the band’s groove pleads with the listener to simply move his body, enjoy the moment.

I’m not going to continue through the track list from here. This is beginning to resemble a review and that was not my intent. I think you get the point. Arcade Fire reviewed the album for you. It’s extremely meta. they’ve rejected all those who would turn their nose up at this incredible rock record.

Sure, the punk ethos is gone from the surface and the anthems are not as anthemic, but this album can stand on its own. It can stand up to your skepticism, your expectations.

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