The Siren Festival

None of the acts at this year’s Siren Festival convinced me that they were rock ‘n roll’s second coming, but I certainly had a lot of fun. The festival went down Saturday within the calefactory confines of Coney Island. I think it’s safe to say that Islands — the Montreal band made up of ex-Unicorns members known for their dual violin players and lengthy, transition-laden songs — certainly came away the winner. Islands started thirty minutes late, with vocalist Nicholas Thorburn emerging onto the stage with a trash can over his head and suggesting that the crowd should take their pants off to beat the heat. He complained of bad luck, perhaps a reference to the constant arguments I observed between the bands and the sound guys. While Islands isn’t quite as good as it was during the Jamie Thompson days and the guitarist (Patrick Gregoire?) mangled many notes on the otherwise fine performance of “Swans (Life After Death)” that closed out the set, Islands nevertheless played a strong show, mostly composed of tunes from their uneven second album.

I’m sorry that I caught Parts & Labor midway through its set. The Brooklyn band, like many acts these days, drew upon The Replacements as their main inspiration, but with some geeky keyboarding thrown in for good measure. They reminded me of some music geeks I used to know in Sacramento, and I may have to check them out in the future.

I now have a soft spot for Jaguar Love and, in particular, Johnny Whitney — a vocalist with an uncombable shock of flaxen hair and a flamboyant swagger. The band offered a somewhat formulaic Glasgow art rock sound, but, unlike some of the bands who played and took their gigs for granted, Jaguar Love knew how to have fun on stage. Whitney screeched out songs like some campy amalgam of Zack de la Rocha and Mick Jagger: his left arm frequently a-kimbo, his thumb and forefinger often squeezing inches of the air as if to offer some belated response to Bill Clinton’s presidential channel-changing gesture. If a set can be judged by how long a beach ball remains in the air batted around by a crowd, Jaguar Love certainly won on this point. There was even a bit of crowd surfing.

I’ve been on the fence about The Dodos for a while, not really caring for or against the music. But now that I’ve seen them live, I’m convinced that the band should rename itself The Three Douchebags. They truly give San Francisco a bad name. Meric Long isn’t much of a slide guitarist and he doesn’t seem to know how to tune a guitar (although perhaps this was the heat warping his instrument or the spliffs warping his mind). Long’s the kind of self-entitled solipsist who really needs to be bruised up in a dive bar brawl to learn the meaning of humility. The band was terrified of appearing naked and imperfect before the crowd, openly bitching about the sound, with Long relying on two mikes — one with mild reverb, the other with heavy reverb; you can guess which mike he used more frequently — to belt out his humorless songs. Despite the promising possibility of a trash can used as percussion, the band seemed to view their set as a live reproduction of their studio recordings. Long performed almost entirely sitting in a folding chair. The Dodos were perfunctory and soulless. I could have had more fun reading a few chapters of a mediocre novel. But morbid curiosity kept me there until the end.

I’m at a point in my life where I’ve grown tired of arrogant 23-year-old musicians who go up on stage and have nothing to justify their hubris. I suppose some arrogance is excusable if the musician has the chops or the personality to back it up. But there isn’t anything within The Dodos’s sound to suggest even the metaphorical residue of a prominent extinct species. Johnny Whitney may have been a bit preposterous, but let’s again consider the beach balls. At the beginning of The Dodos’s set, there were three beach balls being tossed around in the air. Two songs in, the audience stopped batting the balls. The audience took in their joints. Some sang along. But on the whole, The Dodos demonstrated that they were not a band worth standing in the summer heat for. Thankfully, there were plenty of other bands willing to pick up the slack.

In Praise of Blah Blah Blah

Despite constant MySpace page deletions, Blah Blah Blah, not to be confused with the Iggy Pop album, is the real deal. As far as I can tell, this East London trio has been kicking around for the past three years, busking by day and playing gigs by night. (The video above sees the band performing a funny song called “Christmas Caravan” as part of a 2006 acoustic set.) Blah Blah Blah has a policy of never turning down a gig, which has led to a deranged touring schedule that has included wakes, weddings, and even a septuagenarian’s birthday party. (They even busked in front of the Wireless Festival, playing next to a burger van after being kicked out for stealing a megaphone.)

And yet, amazingly, there doesn’t appear to be a Blah Blah Blah album.

There is, however, a single that was only released on vinyl — an iconoclastic rocker called “Death to the Indie Disco,” that can be listened to here (along with three other songs). This song, which recalls the sardonic quality of early Kinks lyrics, could very well be Kryptonite for the insufferable irony now plaguing contemporary pop music. For this band has offered an irresistible hook, something that one can’t help but dance to, and included lyrics like, “You look right a prat when you pose like that / I don’t want to be one of you wankers on the dance floor. (The backing vocals: “It’s just a niche parallel.”) Thus, we now have ironic irony. And with the two conditions canceling each other out, there’s no longer the need for anyone to preen like a hipster.

I can only prognosticate (or rely on dodgy YouTube videos) to determine just how good Blah Blah Blah might be live. But my initial online investigations unfurl a band that’s certainly a good deal of fun, primed to give the indie music scene a much-needed kick in the ass.

(Also, Esser has some potential.)

David Kamp, Blog Snob

Ten years from now, we’ll all be inured to David Kamp. A whole generation will have grown up as his book, The United States of Arugula, has been long forgotten — the remaining copies pulped or perhaps used as oversized skeet shooting pellets, because they couldn’t even sell as remainders. For what imagination can one expect from a hack writer whose grand contributions to letters include The Food Snob’s Dictionary, The Film Snob’s Dictionary, The Rock Snob’s Dictionary, and The Wine Snob’s Dictionary? (One senses a trend. A writer so content to plant the word “snob” to his contributions in four different terrains, even satirically, must truly be an insufferable asshole.)

Right now, this great parvenu David Kamp has turned the prick of his pen to blogs. Using the finest epithets that 1999 had to offer, Kamp rails against the “untamed blogosphere” and the “Wild Web.” He displays his considerable ignorance in suggesting that the Smoking Gun is merely a place “best known for the documents it unearths via the Freedom of Information Act,” failing to understand that it was indeed the Smoking Gun that broke the James Frey scandal. This was the kind of lengthy investigative journalism that the New York Times once practiced, before it turned its resources to the women who New York governors were schtupping. (There’s also this neat little thing called the Internet Archive! Wow! That’s even better than the brand new 56k modem I bought last month from a guy on the street who said that it was “cutting edge.”)

He is content to cast aspersions about specific blogs based entirely on their titles (“cutesie-poo,” “mock-suave,” et al.), without bothering to cite any specific examples as to how the content lives up to these modifiers. (Look, I think the name “David Kamp” sounds like some cult member waiting for the big day when his shaky pyrotechnics knowledge will be enlisted in the jihad, or, failing that, the sad and klutzy moment when he accidentally blows off his hands and it’s all settled up as a dutiful sacrifice to The Leader. But you won’t see me belittling the man’s three syllables. Particularly when his piss-poor argument is so patently ridiculous.)

Indeed, Kamp appears so deaf to the idea of text that he compares Sarah Boxer’s post-excerpt pages to Johnny Carson. In this age of Quark and word processors, Kamp can’t seem to wrap his head around the concept of text being read on an LCD screen and later transposed to book form. It’s certainly bad enough that Kamp can’t even get his medium right. But in citing Johnny Carson, a dead talk show host who has been rotting under the earth quite well for three years and who hasn’t aired on a regular basis in sixteen years, Kamp demonstrates that he is as culturally au courant as a Deadhead who doesn’t quite understand that Jerry Garcia’s fat ass has been long chewed up by the maggots.

In Kamp’s view, a blogger cannot just have an “esoteric interest.” He feels compelled to add the word “obsessive,” as if those who compose their words for a screen are no different from Branch Davidians. He is quick to tell us that “[i]n the case of the blogger Benjamin Zimmer, a linguistic anthropologist, it’s language that turns him on.” That reminds me of the case of the quantum physicist who was turned on by quantum physics. Or David Kamp, the dumbass book critic who was turned on by dumbass observations.

Of course, reading sections of a 368 page book — composed of speedy prose, no less — was “a chore” for poor David Kamp. Kamp doesn’t report if he’s ever done a day of hard labor in his life, something like working on a farm or in a warehouse that might offer a sufficient comparative basis. (I’ll take a wild guess: no.) He doesn’t say what or why. That, of course, would involve actual thought. He merely says that what David Byrne does on his blog is a thousand times better than what Momus does on his. When Kamp resorts to ratios like this, he demonstrates that the true soporific wonkery on display here is not found within blogs, but in Kamp’s utter failure to provide any substantive analysis.

Leafing through much of David Kamp’s indolent and hastily assembled review — lightweight thought, lack of curiosity, comic misfires, recountings of personal travail (i.e., the “chore”) — I was reminded less of a book review than of a dreary speech delivered by a doddering conspiracy theorist for a Rotary International chapter. Sure, you want to encourage the man. But you would never expect his ramblings to be published in The New York Times Book Review. Not without a team of editors to rival a junta. And even then, there’s the old adage about cooks and broth.

And who is Kamp to speculate about Boxer’s vacillating motivations in writing the book? Can’t Boxer change her mind?

A thoughtful, and even critical, review of blog writing is by no means a dreadful idea for a newspaper piece. But this particular review goes well beyond a missed opportunity. If the NYTBR has any good sense, it will have a team of security guards punch David Kamp in the face if he ever tries to set up a lunch meeting with Sam Tanenhaus or Dwight Garner again.

Suggestive Music

albumnude.jpgA remarkably thorough list of album covers with nudity.

Strangely, there appears no sign of Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins. (Correction: found here.) But there are some odd design concepts here — even a daring group called Women of the SS.

I’m not sure who came up with the conceptual cover on the right or why the manager or publicity person figured that raw spinach carefully arranged on a woman’s body would somehow make these guys cool. But it was 1973 and people had a lot of ideas back then.

The only trace of Spinach I that I can find is here:

Bubblegum/rock project of Giorgio Moroder and Michael Holm from 1973 and only originally released in Japan. This is the first time this album has been available on CD and has been fully remastered with informative sleevenotes and an introduction by Michael Holm.

RIP Kevin Dubrow

Yes, it’s hair band day here at Return of the Reluctant. But that’s only because the dubious winds of news have breezed along a strange tendentious trajectory after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Quiet Riot singer Kevin Dubrow has been found dead in Vegas — a place where his services were, I hope, appreciated. Nevertheless, “Cum On Feel the Noize,” despite its crude mangling of monosyllabic words, did blast many a time on my speakers over the years. (And in Quiet Riot’s defense, it was Slade who first performed the song and first butchered the English language.) As did “Metal Health” — again, hardly the most graceful bon mot. But Quiet Riot was the first heavy metal group to have a #1 album on the Billboard charts, until it was ignobly unseated by the likes of Lionel Richie. This demonstrates that there is indeed no justice in the universe, whatever your positions on either Quiet Riot or Lionel Ritchie.

Extreme to Reunite!

Billboard: “Boston-based rock outfit Extreme is reuniting for its first studio album in 13 years and world tour in 2008, Billboard has learned. The group, best known for the 1991 No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit ‘More Than Words,’ disbanded in 1996 but reformed briefly in 2004 and 2006.”

Okay, speaking as a metal geek back from the early ’90’s and as someone who still listens to Poronograffiti from time to time, this is fantastic news!

An Evening in Hoboken, Part One

It had been a good eighteen years since I last set foot in Hoboken, and the first thing that hit me was the smell. It was a pungent industrial monster that scampered up my nostrils and left me curious about the source. The drift came in from the Hudson and had overpowered the pleasantly frigid air of the forty degree cold. The smell became less pronounced as we set on foot away from Hoboken Station — a fairly typical terminal of the era it was built in, if one judges it by its capacious and recently restored waiting room — our purpose to see Dr. Dog at a place called Maxwell’s and to have Mexican food at a place called East L.A.

Shortly after emerging from the terminal, we steeled ourselves in a corner bar over $2 Yuenglings, waiting for our party to assemble. Our party included another writer — an amicable and quite tall Jersey gentleman (this vertical physical characteristic will factor in later) — who I did my best to cheer up over some regrettable personal developments.

As we set foot down Washington Street, the Jersey writer attempted to impress me with Mark Twain quotes. I observed that the difference between bandying about a quote involving lightning and the lightning bug and being aware of the fine band Dr. Dog was considerable, and that there was no need for cabotinage involving the former, when the latter was more specialized knowledge and outside the purview of academics. I made a few snide cracks about Jersey, not to inflame, but to enable this gentleman to defend his state and show me its wonders, which I was genuinely curious about. Washington Street, one of the main Hoboken drags, was possessed of many franchises, including — according to this writer — the first Blimpie’s. Surely, there was a recherche shop, an out-of-the-way niche, or another special locale that would permit Hoboken to shine. But perhaps Hoboken was a better place for personal interconnections. Because later, on the way to Maxwell’s, this writer ran into someone he had known from high school.

springsteen.jpgI was worried about the vicarious provincialism within the restaurant’s name, largely because it too smelled of a certain culinary hubris and the margaritas came not in bulbous glasses, but in fairly common vessels — slightly fluted, possibly more suitable for modest ice cream sundaes. The salt laced on the rim of the glass seemed anticlimactic because of the glass’s elliptical inefficiencies, but the margarita was serviceable and the waitstaff friendly. To test the waters, I had ordered two chiles relleno — one of chicken, one of cheese. The hot plate was pleasantly unpretentious and even came with a dollop of corn.

We then hiked a few blocks to Maxwell’s. From the outside, you wouldn’t know this was a place where bands like The Gourds (or even The Lemonheads!) still played. Most of its real estate was assigned to a boisterous bar. In the back, there was a small room that reminded me of The Cattle Club — a small Sacramento venue where I had seen many shows in the early ’90’s and that is regrettably no longer around.

The writer needed a ticket for Dr. Dog, and it took some initiative on my part to obtain information about when the back room would be open. Needless to say, we passed through the doors without incident — half-imbibed pints in our hands. I was told by the writer that Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video was shot in this room — the one with Courtney Cox. I can find nothing to corroborate this information, but after having viewed the video again, it is quite possible. If it was indeed Maxwell’s, the music video director certainly went out of his way to make the place look bigger, including adding an additional dais at the front of the stage to make Springsteen appear as if he was playing a mid-sized venue. This Springsteen enthusiast seems to believe that it was the “Glory Days” video that was shot here. And having examined the evidence, I have to say that this is a plausible theory.

A YouTube Post for George Murray

By the way, here’s a partial list of the actors and models who appear in the morphing sequence: Cree Summer, Tyra Banks, Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter, Glen Chin, and Brandi Jackson (Michael’s niece). If anyone has a complete list, I’m strangely curious.

There’s also an infamous longer version of this video in which Jackson goes aggro at the end that can be found here. Hard to believe that so many people found it disturbing at the time.

The Radiohead Experiment

If you’re wondering what Radiohead’s total haul was, it was possibly about $2.7 million from downloads. Which has to scare the shit out of the music industry and present a considerable wakeup call for recording artists. Because Radiohead collected every penny here. And given that Radiohead’s last album, Hail to the Thief, sold an initial 300,000 (and apparently went platinum), let’s be generous and say that Radiohead collected 35% of the revenue — or $350,000 of the one million+ copies sold for Thief. That’s a considerable difference that not only demonstrates the possibilities of what artists can collect, but clearly shows that the middle-men are about to cast asunder from the vicious cycle. (And you may recall how Courtney Love computed that a band member gets $45,000 to live on, because royalties are often offset by recoupable expenses, even if a record goes platinum.)

Point being: The Internet, in one fell swoop, has changed the landscape with this experiment. And whether other arts — such as filmmaking or writing — can perform similarly is a question that any business-savvy artist should be seriously pondering right now. I wouldn’t dare suggest that the workers entirely control the means of production, but Radiohead’s experiment is an encouraging sign for any independent artist. Ignore the digital medium at your own peril.

How Sasha Frere-Jones Lost His Mojo

If I had more time, I’d respond with a lengthy and airtight argument. Alas, the deadlines beckon. So, for the moment, let me just say that Sasha Frere-Jones is full of shit, that indie rock hasn’t entirely lost its soul, and that Carl Wilson offers a pretty good response echoing many of the problems that I had with Frere-Jones’s tone-deaf attempt at being contrarian. (Latter link discovered via Richard)

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Nine Inch Nails: “Hello everyone. I’ve waited a LONG time to be able to make the following announcement: as of right now Nine Inch Nails is a totally free agent, free of any recording contract with any label. I have been under recording contracts for 18 years and have watched the business radically mutate from one thing to something inherently very different and it gives me great pleasure to be able to finally have a direct relationship with the audience as I see fit and appropriate. Look for some announcements in the near future regarding 2008. Exciting times, indeed.”

With Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead now operating without record contracts, perhaps the music industry might want to reconsider precisely how it conducts business. The artists and the listeners are not the enemies. The industry’s continued litigation towards online music listeners, the industry’s sustained avarice towards artists locked into unfair contracts, and the industry’s failure to embrace inevitability collectively suggest that we may very well be witnessing a remarkable revolution that may will leave knock the remaining wind out of record companies. These are indeed exciting times. And one can only ponder whether we will see comparable effects in film and television. Is it too idealistic to suggest that the means of production may very well be returning to the workers?