The Long Cut: Animal Collective Hates Your Freedom!

The Long Cut is a column taking the scenic route through essential music. This column is an outgrowth of Hayden Childs’s ongoing project to listen to and review everything in his extensive music library, which can be found at his blog From Here To Obscurity. The explosion of digitized music in the last decade has led to unprecedented access to albums formerly out-of-print, hopelessly obscure, or simply less immediate needs. With this project, Childs means to slow down his musical consumption and enjoy the ride a little more.

I love a good hiatus, but we liberal rock critic types must keep vigilant.  There’s terror centers to build at our nation’s monuments, death panels to oversee, exploding oil rigs to ignore, and most importantly, the trenchant cultural criticism of Fox News to mock.  Guess which one convinced me to put my hiatus on hiatus.

Give up?  It was this work of genius.  It’s so brilliant that the people who gave us Fox & Friends had to publish it, too!  In this amazingly well-thought-out piece (which is, I  must note, not at all 40 years past its sell-by date, so get that out of your mind now), Mr. Crowder argues that hipsters are a monolithic force of snobbish liberalism, just like those damn beatniks and hippies who keep voting for Gene McCarthy and smoking drugs in our nation’s park systems and supermarkets.  Mr. Crowder’s extensive knowledge of hipsters and hipster culture does not preclude him from having a mild case of gender confusion, and when referring to some of these no good youngster, he drops a “he… I mean she… Sorry, IT” line.  Hilarious!  Henny Youngman used to kill with that one in the Catskills, but hey, Mr. Crowder is a groovy, happening young person for whom the classics never get old, do you grok, 23 skidoo?  The icing on the cake is the assertion by Mr. Crowder, whom Fox News helpfully identifies as a comedian, that these hipsters, this scourge of trust-fund liberalism, are so blind to the threat of terrorism that they are – here, I’ll quote it – “likely under the impression that Usama Bin Laden is wearing skinny jeans in his cave, currently listening to Animal Collective as he throws back cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.”

Ha ha ha!  Hipsters are so dumb.  Also they stink, says Mr. Crowder’s punchline.

Now I can’t take this stuff personally.  For one thing, I’m old and fat and look terrible in skinny jeans.  Another, I’m relatively poor and have never lived in New York. (Sidebar: although Mr. Crowder appears to be a young New Yorker himself, he is apparently unaware that “hipster” is a common pejorative among hipsters.)  All of this is to say that I am light years from hip, hep, or downtown by anyone’s metric.  But as a liberal and a fan of Animal Collective, I feel – somewhat stupidly, I should add – that I must end my long, sleepy, pleasant hiatus to talk about the band and make the simple point that Mr. Crowder’s article appears in the same week that one character on Mad Men tells another that he is confusing a lot of things at once right now.  What do these two things have in common?  The answer may surprise you!
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The Long Cut: Love, Arthur Lee-Style

When I was young and firebellied with my head bursting with education and the sheer thrill of being alive, it might have come to pass that you and I could have spent time discussing Kant’s Critique of Judgment, and it’s within the realm of possibility that you might have even found my take interesting.  But my memory and understanding of Kant’s system of aesthetics have gone the way of my rudimentary understanding of the Russian language, so Прости меня.  I do recall that Kant lays out his taxonomy of art at one point, and he places music in the highest, least touchable, most ineffable category, because – and I am almost definitely getting this wrong – he argues that music is the artform least affected by reason.

There’s, of course, much more to philosophy than Kant, but his ideas were the touchstone for pretty much all of Western thought.  I forget which of his followers took his ideas of sublimity and attached them to dynamic conflict (Schopenhauer, maybe?  This sounds like him).  But whoever that dead German guy was, he sure was right.

One of the things that I most like to hear as a listener to music is the embrace of opposites, the way that great musicians take two mutually exclusive ideas and turn them into harmony – or, at least, a pleasing and harmonious disharmony or anti-harmony – without losing their essential components.  This is sublime: the semi-synthesis of opposites.  Arthur Lee, I say unto you, was a master of the sublime.

Arthur Lee was the frontman for Love, a multiracial rock band when there were few other multiracial rock bands.  Love played music that was simultaneously crude garage rock and ultra-sophisticated chamber pop.  Love’s greatest album Forever Changes manages to rock like hell while rarely touching upon any of the key elements of rocking like hell.  In his excellent 33 1/3 book on Forever Changes, Andrew Hultkrans calls Lee prophetic, visionary, and apocalyptic.  He’s dead right about the last two, but fortunately Lee is about as prophetic as The Book of Revelations, which is to say: not at all.  At least thus far.  But I don’t know that anyone has ever created apocalyptic rock with the fervor of Lee.  Most of his subject matter seems married to a metal sensibility, but, as I say, Love had no metal.  I have a hard time parsing most metal vocalists, anyway.
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The Long Cut: Laurie Anderson Battles The Pink Robots

In this, the fourth installment of The Long Cut (so named because we are taking the scenic route through essential music), Hayden Childs discusses the discography of performance artist-pop star-stealth polemicist Laurie Anderson. This column is an outgrowth of Childs’s ongoing project to listen to and review everything in his extensive music library, which can be found at his blog From Here To Obscurity. The explosion of digitized music in the last decade has led to unprecedented access to albums formerly out-of-print, hopelessly obscure, or simply less immediate needs. With this project, Childs means to slow down his musical consumption and enjoy the ride a little more.
 
With Independence Day right around the corner and her first album of new music in 9 years freshly available, this week is ripe for a discussion of Laurie Anderson.  Anderson is a unique artist who spends a lot of time thinking and writing about culture in the U.S., and her albums are generally an outgrowth of her live shows, which blend music, stories, comedy, and performance art.  She performed her first performance art piece in 1969, spent the 70s developing her skills, and had a surprise hit in 1981 with “O Superman,” an electronic piece that sounds as fresh and relevant today as it did then.  She’s stated that she sees her work as part of a strain of American humor that stretches back to Mark Twain.  Although she’s kidding when she says this and it definitely seems counter-intuitive to equate Twain’s 19th-century folksiness with Anderson’s 23rd-century downtown electronics, I think Anderson is kidding on the square.  Twain was a performance artist of sorts himself, making quite a bit of his income and fame through events where he would tell stories and jokes with a deadly sharp edge of satire.  Throw in a healthy dose of postmodernism and minimalist composition and voice modulators, and we’re back to Anderson’s show.  I’ve seen her live a number of times, and I heartily recommend the experience.

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The Long Cut: The Go-Betweens’ Twin Layers Of Lightning

The Long Cut is a new column which takes a scenic route through essential music. This column is an outgrowth of Hayden Childs’s ongoing project to listen to and review everything in his extensive music library, which can be found at his blog From Here To Obscurity. The explosion of digitized music in the last decade has led to unprecedented access to albums formerly out-of-print, hopelessly obscure, or simply less immediate needs. With this project, Childs means to slow down his musical consumption and enjoy the ride a little more. In the third installment, Childs discusses the discography of the beloved cult-pop band The Go-Betweens.

When people talk about someone being influenced by Dylan, they usually mean “he/she writes talky songs over simple chord changes,” forgetting, as it were, that Dylan was a hell of a pop songwriter who could, when he needed, push that bleat of his into something that resembled crooning.  Don’t blame your friend who flattens Dylan’s skills.  That’s received pop culture wisdom popping out of his mouth.

I say all of this to lead into these fighting words: many songwriters say they’re influenced by Dylan.  Few are worthy of that influence.  But The Go-Betweens were a band that did Dylan proud. Built on the partnership between Aussie songwriters Robert Forster (the arty one) and Grant McLennan (the poppy one), the Go-Betweens crafted songs as if they were artisan glassblowers, shaping raw emotion into impossibly light and beautiful artworks: unfailingly smart, often enigmatic and yet equally translucent, melodic, dissonant, dynamic, passionate. The band recorded a number of albums together in the 80s and then broke up when they failed to find any success. Then, against all odds, the two songwriters got back together in the 00s and put out three more studio albums that were the equal of their earlier work. That puts them into pretty rarified company. Mission of Burma, yes. Dinosaur Jr, true.  But who else?

The Fall Vs. Whatever It Is That Is Encroaching

The Long Cut is a new column which takes a scenic route through essential music. This column is an outgrowth of Hayden Childs’s ongoing project to listen to and review everything in his extensive music library, which can be found at his blog From Here To Obscurity. The explosion of digitized music in the last decade has led to unprecedented access to albums formerly out-of-print, hopelessly obscure, or simply less immediate needs. With this project, Childs means to slow down his musical consumption and enjoy the ride a little more. In the second installment, Childs discusses the discography of the long-lived punk band The Fall.

Best of all is to be idle,
And especially on a Thursday,
And to sip wine while studying the light:
The way it ages, yellows, turns ashen
And then hesitates forever
On the threshold of the night
That could be bringing the first frost.

– Charles Simic

“They are always different; they are always the same” was how the legendary DJ John Peel described The Fall, and he would know. I agree with John Peel (and who wouldn’t), but one who listens through the whole discography, as I did recently, will hear that there is a definite trajectory to their sound. It’s significant that the first Fall single was the song “Repetition,” which stated “we’ve repetition in the music, and we’re never going to lose it.” Most of the songs are built on a single riff or rotating sequence of riffs. There may be a chorus or a second part. There’s rarely a third part or bridge. Mark E. Smith’s cryptic lyrics and unmistakeable delivery are both the most defining aspect of the Fall sound and the most mutable. I jokingly compared him to a street preacher in a Flannery O’Connor story back in 2008. Bill Ham, who turned me onto The Fall about a decade ago, pitched a brilliant book idea to the 33 1/3 series in which he would use The Fall’s hyper-literate obscurity to satirize and deflate some of the more self-important aspects of rock criticism. The 33 1/3 editors rejected his pitch, but I think they – and the public – really missed out. Even Bill points out, though, that it’s hard to get fans to agree on what Mark E. is going on about, but all fans agree that The Fall makes it sound absolutely vital to attempt to find out. This website, which includes a dauntingly complete discography and transcription of lyrics, may be the most valuable resource for Fall fans on the Internet. My pal Gary Dickerson (of Self-Help Radio) has said, “People like to talk about MES’s ‘wit’ & his grumpiness, but what drew me to The Fall & what keeps me there, besides the balls-out sonic experimentation in their best work, is Smith’s ambivalence toward language. He obviously needs & loves it, but can’t help but highlight its failure in everything from poetry to simple human communication.” John Peel himself could not have said it better.

One comparison that I couldn’t escape while listening to The Fall: how they are alike and different from The Mekons, who are often my absolute favorite band. Both came out of unfashionable areas of England in 1977. Both write intellectually dense lyrics that address the uglier sides of English and world history. Both have a minimalist approach to songwriting that frees their more experimental side. Both love American country music (admittedly, the Mekons more so) and both mix country and rockabilly (and synth-pop and industrial music and garage and krautrock and pretty much everything else that’s awesome) in with their post-punk aesthetic. My friend Chris Estey has commented that The Mekons are “sort of the anti-Fall — iconoclastic collectivism versus nihilistic ego-burst.” I agree that the Mekons are a quite different band, but I don’t see them as opposites so much as complements. What makes The Mekons The Mekons is that they have any number of different personalities all working together towards a collective aesthetic that is greater than any one of the individuals in the band (sorry, Jonboy, but that’s why I will always love Mekons albums better than your solo albums or even the Waco Bros). The Fall is about Mark E. Smith’s world and could not exist without him. I don’t think that he’s nihilistic, though. A crank, yes. Angry, yes. But it seems to me that there’s a deep sense of disappointment running through his work, and that disappointment is built on his sense of a better world.

So here’s The Fall’s discography, save a few EPs and live albums and collections, all listed by date except for the huge Peel Sessions box, which I slotted at time of release rather than date of recording.  There may be a daunting amount of material here, but this should help one sort through it all.
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The Long Cut: The Louvin Brothers’ Tragic Songs of Life


The Long Cut is a new column which takes a scenic route through essential music. This column is an outgrowth of Hayden Childs’s ongoing project to listen to and review everything in his extensive music library, which can be found at his blog From Here To Obscurity. The explosion of digitized music in the last decade has led to unprecedented access to albums formerly out-of-print, hopelessly obscure, or simply less immediate needs. With this project, Childs means to slow down his musical consumption and enjoy the ride a little more. In the first installment, Childs discusses some of the albums by the venerable country duo The Louvin Brothers.

Even when they sing secular music, the Louvin Brothers are about the best argument for the existence of a benevolent deity outside of the way that Christina Hendricks is shaped.  Charlie and Ira Loudermilk, who for some reason decided that “Louvin” was a more commercial name, sang a type of country gospel based on close harmony.  Many singers in popular music pitch their harmonies in fifths (C and G, for instance), which helps keep everyone in key and cover the tonal discrepancies (aka the timbre) of their voices.  Close harmony singers often pitch their harmonies in thirds, which can sound so very wrong with unsympatico voices.  Many of the popular singers who have pulled off close harmonies are also closely related: the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, the Andrews Sisters.  It’s not completely necessary, as in the case of Simon and Garfunkel, but it seems to help.

Anyway, the Louvin Brothers sang in amazing close harmony, swooping about each other’s lines, trading the melody, and generally performing impossible feats of sound as if it were nothing at all.  Even when they’re singing about the dangers of being broadminded (as they tell us, it’s spelled “s-i-n”) or how removing the Bible from the classroom will lead to a generation of children who will never even have the chance to go to heaven (yikes!), even when their lyrics are about something that I – to put it mildly – have some qualms about, man oh man how I love their music.

Tragic Songs of Life (1956). Is there a better title for an album of country songs than this?  I would posit that there is not.  On their first secular album (and second album overall) The Louvins bring home the tragedy and murder and existential horror that our folk-loving forebearers called entertainment.  You will never hear better versions of “In The Pines” or “Knoxville Girl” than the versions on this album.

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Fela Becomes FELA!

felaI’m not one to keep up with the brights lights of Broadway, so I was surprised to learn on Monday’s Colbert Report that Bill T. Jones and the astonishing band Antibalas have launched a Broadway production based on the life of Fela Kuti.  If you’re unfamiliar with him, Fela was a Nigerian musician and political activist who invented the musical genre Afrobeat, a fusion of American jazz, rock, and, more than anything else, funk with the jazzy Western African music called highlife.

The structure of Fela’s music was almost always the same: long, long, long grooves built on snaky guitar lines over the tightest rhythm section known to man (his drummer Tony Allen is a mindblowingly great talent) with a horn section sometimes laying down the melody and sometimes hitting the Memphis-style R&B punctuation.  Fela played the organ or the sax, and the first six or so minutes of a given song was often taken with a Fela solo.  Then he’d start singing in pidgin English, which he chose to spread his message to as many listeners as possible.  The songs would build in intensity with a call-and-response between Fela and his back-up singers.  I haven’t even mentioned Fela’s dancers, who would shake and writhe as if possessed, sometimes for the whole length of the song.  And these songs could stretch to 45 minutes or more.

Fela made his most powerful music throughout the 70s, and he was not alone in breaking the boundaries between jazz and funk and everything else that struck him as important.  Miles Davis was making similar music at the same time, as were James Brown, Funkadelic, and, on the other end of the funk-art axis, Can.  But Fela, unlike these other musicians, lived in a country suffering under a corrupt military dictatorship, and Fela was uniquely situated to live his art.  For instance, the song covered on the Colbert Report last night, “Zombie,” was a 1978 diatribe against the Nigerian military that led to horrible retribution.  The military burned Fela’s compound, which was known as the Kalakuta Republic, and savagely beat Fela and his family, even throwing his elderly mother from a second story window.  She lived, but her injuries persisted and led to the complications that killed her not long after.  One of the most powerful moments in the documentary Fela: Music Is The Weapon comes when Fela, uncharacteristically quiet and morose, describes seeing his mother thrown from the window and knowing that his actions had led to this.

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Loud & Rich At UT Ballroom

LoudnRich“Loud & Rich” is the official tour title of Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III’s current joint excursion, and it’s clear that they mean it as a joke. But tickets were $40 at the door and $45 in advance, which is not exactly going to bring in the kids. I’ll admit this a personal issue for me. I wrote a book about Richard Thompson that came out last June (it’s called Shoot Out The Lights, number 58 in the 33 1/3 series of short books about single albums). When I first approached Thompson’s management looking for interviews, I mentioned that some of Thompson’s contemporaries from the Brit-folk scene of the late-60s have been engaging a younger audience, and I hoped that this book could do the same for Thompson. His management informed me that Thompson had no interest in any such project. From the price of tickets to the prevalent gray in the UT Ballroom crowd on Saturday night, it appears that Thompson still has no interest in engaging younger listeners.

Which is a damn shame, because he appeared to be having more fun at Saturday’s show than any time I’ve seen him in the last decade. His guitar skills remain unsurpassed, and his ability to wreak pleasing discordance out of his leads is more akin to the fans of Bartok and avant-jazz that you find among indie rock guitar gods rather than among his blues-besotted Boomer contemporaries. His utter commitment to his songs, no matter how dark and twisted they become, is a generation-spanning gift. But okay, I get it, he doesn’t care that his audience continues to age with him.

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