Infinite Void’s “Endless Waves” is a Perfect Farewell

In what is becoming a disturbing trend, I’m in love with a band that doesn’t exist anymore. Australia’s Infinite Void have already broken up prior to the release of their second full-length, Endless Waves, which casts a bit of a pall over the proceedings. On the other hand, there is some value in breaking up at the top of your game. Endless Waves is such a perfect distillation of this band’s style and such a strong set of songs start to finish that it would have proved difficult to improve upon if they tried.

Out of all the subjective elements of music, maybe the biggest one is what makes a great rock song. Lately, I’ve been really into bands that sound a lot like Infinite Void: aggressive yet ethereal with a bit of a goth tinge coming from the rumbling bass lines and reverbed guitar. Alicia Sayes’ vocals sound more withdrawn and distant, which leads to the band’s distinct sound that falls somewhere in between punk and dream pop.

The lyrics don’t feel like a major emphasis of this album that is really about the sound, but they focus on the types of motifs that fit music that is dark and dreamy — for example, the opening song “Dark Dreams” is about dark dreams. “Face in the Window” is another highlight, and the titular image is one that is a bit unsettling and creepy. That leads into an instrumental, “The Long Night,” followed by “Reflection,” which hypnotizes with its spacious sound and rolling bass. It’s one of my favorite sequences on an album this year.

It can be a bit tough to convince anyone to listen to an album by a band that is already broken up — it can feel like you’re inviting people to a party that already happened. And there is the sad reality that other music writers won’t be incentivized to write about or promote this album, which is going to keep it obscure. It’s too bad, because none of that has any impact on the actual music, which is so solidly written, thoughtfully sequenced, and has all these compelling tensions in it. Infinite Void deserve a wider cult following that they may never get.

Baseball’s Contrarian Franchise

Despite what you might think from watching ESPN or MLB Network, the most interesting franchise in baseball is not the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the L.A. Dodgers, or the Chicago Cubs. It’s a team that plays its home games in a dingy dome stadium in front of generously 5,000-10,000 people per night, has one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, and was accused by almost everyone of “tanking” for a high draft pick just a couple months ago.

Despite the public thinking they were fielding a terrible team on purpose, the Tampa Bay Rays currently sit at 46-44 with a +13 run differential, continuing their recent trend of somehow patching together a .500 team every season with what looks like the baseball equivalent of Scotch tape or possibly gluesticks. If not for the Mariners being the luckiest baseball team in history, they would be contending for a playoff spot. The secret to their success is what makes them the most fascinating team in the league to watch: the Rays are willing to rethink every single aspect of the game if it means getting an edge.

In the old Moneyball days, it was somewhat easy for the small-budget organizations to field a winning team because other front offices didn’t know what on-base percentage was and thought the key to winning games was bunting. In today’s MLB, there are no secrets. The big market teams have stopped entrusting their decision-making to former players who don’t actually understand the game, replacing them with robotic Ivy League whizzes and baseball nerds. The odds have never been more stacked against teams like Tampa Bay or Oakland, who can’t afford to keep star players once their salaries get too high and now are left with fewer resources towards analytics than the bigger clubs.

Since simply outsmarting teams like the Red Sox and Yankees is no longer an option, the Rays have gone a different route: they think differently and weirder. In a Wall Street Journal article, a team official summed up the Rays Way: “If we occupy the wake of both the Yankees and Boston and our behavior is aligned with theirs, we’re never going to step out and pass them—ever.” The only edge the Rays have is their willingness to try anything, no matter how crazy it sounds.

So the Rays have become the contrarians of baseball, mostly through necessity. Their home park of Tropicana Field has become like a baseball laboratory, where new ideas are constantly tossed into the fire. Eyebrows first raised in the offseason, when they traded away their face of the franchise, Evan Longoria, jettisoned last year’s best player, Steven Souza Jr., and straight-up DFA’d Corey Dickerson, who was coming off what looked like a career year. This led to the accusations of tanking (and they were obviously salary-cutting moves), but they were more about changing the philosophy of the team. With the rest of the league obsessed with power hitting and launching the ball, the Rays decided to go small ball, building around their defense and pitching.

It’s worked thus far, as the Rays are a competitive team that is notably stingy at giving up runs. Most remarkably, they’ve done it while frequently using a three or even two-man starting rotation. They’ve taken to having “bullpen days,” where 3-4 pitchers go through the batting order once or twice instead of using a traditional starter. They’ve also begun using “the opener,” where one of their normally late-inning relievers starts the game, faces the team’s toughest hitters, then leaves after one or two innings to hand the ball to the “starter,” who is spared from facing that team’s best hitters three times. These are all dramatic shifts from the way every other team is run, with a five-man rotation where the starter pitches basically as long as he can every game.

The logic behind the bullpen days makes a lot of sense: relievers routinely have lower ERAs than starters and pitchers always are better the first and second times through the batting order than the third. While very good starting pitchers are still important (and the Rays have them in Chris Archer and Blake Snell), using a group of bullpen guys instead of trying to wring 150-180 innings out of a mediocre 4th or 5th starter is one of those obvious ideas backed up by data that just needed a team brave enough to try it. As always, due to their situation, the Rays are that team.

Baseball is notoriously resistant to change, which leads to widespread skepticism and even disdain whenever the Rays try these strategies. But baseball’s obsession with tradition and doing things the way they always have been done is exactly why the Rays are able to comparatively thrive despite being in the worst possible situation. And when the rest of the league catches up to them on bullpen days, like they did with infield shifts and aggressive platooning, they will have some other trick to try to stay ahead of the curve (my guess is trying to develop two-way players).

More reasonable critics of the Rays dislike the team’s cold approach and cheapness, which leads to their best players inevitably being shipped out of Tampa, often at the peak of their ability. Personally, I enjoy the team’s lack of sentimentality and borderline disrespect for their own fans. If the Rays only did things that were popular and understood, they would never be remotely competitive in the AL East. And there is something admirable about how they make their decisions with the internal conviction that they are right, even if nobody else agrees. It’s why the Rays are a fun and good baseball team, as well as a walking argument for not just aligning with the status quo.

“Bon Voyage” is the Sound of Melody Prochet’s Imagination

There are many elements in Bon Voyage, the new album by Melody’s Echo Chamber, that I should dislike. There’s the Ron Burgundy flute section in “Cross Your Heart,” the scat singing in “Cross Your Heart,” that autotuned part in “Desert Horse,” the out-of-place metal guitar riff in “Desert Horse,” the screeching vocals in “Desert Horse,” that guy randomly shouting in a different language in “Desert Horse,” and all of the other things in “Desert Horse.”

This album is an absolute mess and I love it. After years of listening and writing and being kind of fatigued with music at times, it is so refreshing to hear an album that is so different, so unexpected, so creative. Bon Voyage is the follow-up to Melody Prochet’s self-titled 2013 album, and it definitely feels like she is cramming five years of kooky ideas into a relatively short (seven songs, 33 minutes) album. The closest comparison I can think of is Blueberry Boat by the Fiery Furnaces — that was another album that was cryptic and baffling and left the listener unsure if the creators were geniuses or just incoherent musicians.

Bon Voyage is even more remarkable because Prochet’s last album, while enjoyable, was fairly safe and predictable. It was classic shoegazey dream pop, like the noisier side of Broadcast, and the songs all went the obvious way and sounded like a lot of other bands. On this album, the songs never go the way you expect them to; they careen back and forth between different melodies, rhythms, genres and tempos, never settling in one place or on one idea. This makes it jarring and disorienting, and as hinted in the first paragraph, it’s unlikely that any one listener will enjoy every single thing Prochet throws at them on this album.

But isn’t that how it should be? The sound of someone’s imagination shouldn’t always be exactly what we want or expect — that would be excruciatingly boring, which is one word that can’t be applied to Bon Voyage whether you love it or hate it. This is a purely forward-thinking album in the shoegaze/dream pop realm that is too often about worshiping the past.

Here’s a weird thing about Bon Voyage: the parts I mentioned in the first paragraph, all things I normally hate in music, might be my favorite parts of the album. While initially off-putting, after several listens I embraced this album’s eccentricities because it was so fun to hear an artist just try everything and not care. Instead of turning the album off, they made me want to keep listening to hear what she would do next.

People who enjoy doing such things can try to psychoanalyze Prochet and figure out why she made an album like this. There was the relatively high-profile break-up with Kevin Parker of Tame Impala (who produced her last album) and a vague serious accident that left her with broken vertebrae and a brain aneurysm. With six years in between albums, there was obviously a lot of pent-up creativity. It all came out in a gloriously scattered way, and I think the music largely speaks for itself without needing any narratives attached to it.

All of the quirks of this album are the obvious talking points, which can overshadow that Prochet is still very good at traditional singing and songwriting. The back half of Bon Voyage chills out a bit and is more the straight-forward dream pop that she was previously known for, and even its weirdest songs have addictive hooks in them. This is a lot more than some random hodgepodge of sounds: there is a real internal logic to what Prochet is doing, and every second of this album is imbued with the intoxicating spirit of freedom and creativity.

Oh Right, This is a Music Blog

When I’m not complaining about social media and the state of our society, I occasionally do find time to indulge in the expressive artistic medium commonly referred to as “music.” This art form uses sound to convey messages about the artists themselves or the world they live in, and it is easily accessible via websites like Bandcamp or Spotify — or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can even see it be performed in a live setting. Given my enjoyment of the medium and the artists who practice it, I realized this could be the type of thing I could share on this website, with the understanding that other people who love music could find my posts and share in my enjoyment of it.

Here are some of the releases from this year (2018) that I’ve been listening to recently, along with some incisive and articulate commentary explaining to you why I enjoy them.

U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited

The genre of “pop-punk” is often either bad pop or watered-down punk. In a Poem Unlimited finds a nice sweet spot between those two genres — its sound mixes pop hooks and vocals with the occasional burst of abrasive noise, while its lyrics have the sharp confrontational edge of punk. Mentally, I began thinking of this album as “punk pop.”

Meghan Remy’s lyrics are politically charged, but not in the way that feels like she’s talking down to you or telling you what you already know. The key is that she grounds her politics in narratives, like the revenge fable “Velvet 4 Sale,” which is just classic storytelling with a message attached to it instead of a strident scream at the listener that demands them to feel a certain way. “M.A.H.” is another highlight that serves as a scathing critique of the Obama administration and a personal story of losing faith in your country and the people who run it.

On “Incidental Boogie,” Remy whispers “I gotta tell you something you don’t want to hear; it’s the truth and that’s never easy to hear.” That is kind of the mission statement for In a Poem Unlimited, which is pop music that isn’t content to just be pleasant to listen to.

Beach House – “7”

Beach House remains a uniquely vexing band. Skeptics rag on them for making the same song over and over, while many of their fans will say they’re happy to hear the same Beach House song forever. Meanwhile, I argue that this band has evolved and changed in a subtle way that hasn’t really been noted by the general public.

A couple years ago, I went nuts for their previous album, the grievously underrated masterpiece Thank Your Lucky Stars. It just had a different feeling than their other music to me, and 7 has a similar intangible quality, where it sounds only like Beach House, yet conjures up completely different emotions than a lot of their previous work. I don’t think it’s quite as good as Thank Your Lucky Stars, but it shows the band continuing to evolve and experiment with their tried-and-true sound.

As someone who loves to laboriously explain why I enjoy things, this band has frustrated me because it’s been hard to come up with satisfying reasons for why their music is so effective. Now I’m starting to understand that not being able to explain why they’re so good is what makes them so good.

Wax Idols – Happy Ending

This is the somewhat delayed follow-up to American Tragic, which was one of my favorite albums of 2015. In the lead-up to this album, I found myself listening to all of Wax Idols’ albums and realizing that this is one of the best rock bands going today. Frontwoman Hether Fortune is charismatic and has constantly progressed as a songwriter, and their sound has evolved into a smooth mix of goth, pop, punk and shoegaze.

Happy Ending is the most poppy effort by the band, but it doesn’t back off from dark subject matter. “Mausoleum” turns the feeling of loss and memory into a catchy pop jingle; “Too Late” is a chipper song about suicide and realizing that you’ve wasted your entire life. This is rock music that is enjoyable to listen to and also packs an emotional wallop.

Lithics – Mating Surfaces

The rhythm-centric punk sound and jittery deadpan vocals of Lithics make for an easy comparison to The Fall if their singer were a woman who was less racist and dead. They’ve channeled a lot of different punk groups into a sound that feels unique enough, mostly because of the nearly spoken vocals and abstract lyrics.

I’m sure many listeners will find this band to be unlistenable nonsense, but that’s what makes it feel more like genuine punk, the kind that alienates closeminded people. Music that is this unapologetically weird and energetic doesn’t come around too often, and it’s always something I’ll embrace.

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

I’m a pretty stereotypical anti-country guy and have a healthy skepticism for any pop album that I feel is being graded on a curve by indie fans, like where they praise it to the heavens just because it isn’t an active assault on the senses (see: Lorde’s Melodrama). I also just really hate the city of Nashville. So I’m not exactly the target audience for this Kacey Musgraves album.

But there is an appealing simplicity to Golden Hour that makes me kind of understand why people like country music. Musgraves being a great singer helps, but it’s her lyrics that stand out: they’re basic and unpretentious, capturing every-day life while also not falling into the typical country tropes of talking down to the audience. There are some awkward half-hearted attempts at country radio songs on this album, like “High Horse,” that detract from the proceedings, but if you just ignore those this is a strong album that transcends genre stereotypes.

Musgraves is at her best on songs like “Slow Burn” that are gentle, simple, and oddly psychedelic.

An Explanation For Why I Quit a Bad Website

Since I deleted my Twitter account a couple weeks ago, many have been wondering why I chose to walk away from the website at the height of my fame, abandoning my nearly 300 adoring followers who read all of my tweets in rapt admiration. I’ve had people approach me on the street and ask me: “Why, Josh? Why did you do it?” So even though I had no plans of making the cliché post about my departure, I figured I owe it to all the fans and kids out there who look up to me.

My reason had nothing to do with any individual people, except possibly Kanye West, but more to do with how the site was starting to function due to changes Twitter made to its service. I’ll focus on the two big ones that I feel fundamentally altered Twitter and turned it from a Reasonably Good Website into an Actually Quite Bad Website.

The Character Limit

Recently, Twitter doubled its character limit from 140 to 280, in order to allow people to “more thoroughly express themselves and engage in the discussions they love” or some nonsense like that. This was met with mostly anger, but the outrage largely subsided after a few weeks as I guess most people got used to it. I never did, though.

A moment of over-analysis: I feel like the 140 character limit was important not just because of brevity and readability, but because it made people think about what they were saying and how best to say it. Now even with 140, Twitter was not necessarily a beacon of intellectual conversation, but tweets were often funny, incisive, and it felt different from other social media and writing.

Right after 280 was installed, there was a noticeable downgrade in tweet quality. Now tweets often took up twice as much space on the timeline, and it’s not like the extra words actually accomplished anything. Tweets didn’t have more clarity, they weren’t funnier, and they didn’t provide more information. All this change did was give people the freedom to write poorly.

So that change was part of why I quit, since it made my timeline into a mess, but it wasn’t the complete dealbreaker that reason #2 was.

Our Algorithm Thinks You Might Like This Algorithm

No, the change that nearly singlehandedly destroyed Twitter for me was the switch to an algorithm timeline, which was unrolled a few months ago by a company that seemingly has no idea why anyone uses its service. This was the single biggest reason I found myself looking at my timeline and getting actively irritated, because the entire point of Twitter was that you got to curate your own timeline and choose who showed up in it.

Messing with the linear timeline and inserting tweets from people you don’t follow or care about was bad enough, but the way Twitter chose which tweets showed up in your timeline was the truly offensive part. Much like Facebook, it decided it based on how many “engagements” and retweets and likes a tweet had, which meant you were always getting garbage memes or popular tweets by famous people shoved into your timeline.

More over-analysis: part of what I (and I suspect others) enjoyed about Twitter is that it was an egalitarian medium. For a long time, a tweet from some nobody like me would show up in your timeline and look exactly the same as a tweet from a celebrity with 10 million followers. The cool implication here is that my thoughts and opinions are just as worthwhile as theirs, or at least just as worthy of consideration.

This change destroyed that concept of the site. Pretty much overnight after instituting the algorithm, the site turned into a popularity contest (well, more than it already was) and a place that became disproportionately dominated by celebrities who aren’t actually interesting or intelligent. And I’ve gone off on this subject before, but the assumption that the best tweets you most want to see are the ones with the highest RT/fav numbers is the opposite of correct. The stuff that gets RT’d is usually pandering, hysteric, or obvious, and people began to tweet more in those tones to get high engagement numbers.

A sentiment I used to see about Twitter vs. Facebook is that Facebook was where you were stuck with boring people you knew and Twitter was where you could meet cool strangers. The algorithm timeline turned Twitter into the worst of both: a site where you were stuck with strangers you don’t like. It’s worse than Facebook. It might be the worst site on the entire internet. I haven’t even mentioned Trump yet.

It’s all a bummer because Twitter was an enjoyable place for a long time. I met (kind of) some people there that I liked talking to, and I think I even became a better writer through crafting tweets and almost developing a character in a sense. But the site has turned into something dark and ugly and I didn’t want to be there anymore. I realized one day that I was spending a lot of time looking at this thing that I didn’t even like when I could be reading a book.

The decision to quit entirely was maybe excessive, but I’m a firm believer in giving up when things get tough or unpleasant. Knowing when to quit is one of my few real life skills. In this case, it just felt like the site wasn’t doing anything positive for me anymore. I was thinking about it too much (in case that’s not obvious by now) and it stopped being fun.

And on some level, I began to feel like maybe we’re not meant to have a constant stream of people’s opinions running on our phone at all times, and I was tired of spending so much time just reacting to things and reading other people’s reactions. So I deleted my account while everyone was yammering about the White House Correspondent’s Dinner and haven’t really missed it much since. I haven’t seen anything about Trump in weeks. I don’t know what Kanye is tweeting about. I barely know what that “Laurel and Yanni” thing was. I read a book last week and enjoyed it.

“The Man Who Knew Too Little” Might Know More Than We Think

A couple days ago, the New York Times published “The Man Who Knew Too Little,” a story about Erik Hagerman, who has withdrawn completely from hearing about the news since the election of Trump. There were a variety of responses to this, mostly negative about either the article or its subject. Some felt it was a waste for the Times to use precious article space on this doofus. Others felt that the man’s method of complete ignorance and withdrawal was loathsome, a luxury afforded by his privilege and total lack of regard for others.

I found the article fascinating for a variety of reasons. I was amused at the lengths Hagerman went to in order to avoid hearing the news, and the article approaches his grand experiment with a proper “look at this guy” tone, particularly when he tells a friend “I’m now officially cross with you” when she breaks his self-imposed “blockade.” But beneath the chuckles at his eccentricities, there is some real insight here into privilege and the way people use it.

The prevailing opinion on Hagerman is that he is privileged and his blockade is the workings of a selfish man who wants to shut off from the world instead of confronting problems head-on. This is true to an extent, but also an oversimplification that doesn’t draw a key distinction: that following the news is not the same thing as actually being politically active. In fact, following the news passively and commenting on it — while also being fully aware that it only minimally affects you — is its own form of privilege that Hagerman has opted out of.

It is hard to call Hagerman’s blockade admirable, but there is an element of self-awareness to it that I respect. For various reasons, not everyone is cut out to be a political actor, but many people (including me) continue to comment on politics on social media and in real life as if it makes any difference. Hagerman, on the other hand, acknowledges his limitations, plainly stating that he never did anything productive in his years of following politics. While this isn’t the type of attitude that will win person of the year awards, his awareness of his shortcomings is something that others can learn from and I am sort of envious of it.

So this article caused some self-reflection, in that I’m a privileged guy who follows the news a lot and have really been no more productive in terms of creating actual change than Hagerman has been while obliviously listening to white noise in his headphones at the coffee shop. I’ve had an internal struggle lately over whether I should be doing more or less. As much as part of me wants to be the type of person who really makes a difference, there is also the truth that I can’t really stomach a lot of politics, am deeply cynical about the way the system works, and frankly just lack the networking ability to really make anything happen. My contributions have been limited to random donations, which is something that can be done independent of plugging into the gross news cycle.

Hagerman has figured something out here: that shutting up and going away is possibly more valuable than the counterproductive patterns I and many others engage in, of treating politics like entertainment and spending so much of our day reacting to circumstances outside of our control. Even though he likely reached this conclusion through self-preservation, there is real value in shutting off the 24/7 news faucet. Of course, those who have the passion and drive to make a difference in politics should do so. For the rest of us, sticking our head in the sand might be an improvement.

Vyva Melinkolya is a Reminder of Why Shoegaze is Great

I watched lot of figure skating and icedancing during the Olympics. In those competitions, contestants receive two different scores during the routine: there is the technical score, where the judges determine how well they executed certain elements of their routine, then there is a program component score that measures their artistry, interpretation and presentation. Honestly, it’s a pretty baffling scoring system for a sport and it is communicated very poorly to the viewing audience, but it got me thinking about how I evaluate music, especially shoegaze.

There is a very established shoegaze formula, and like those figure skating routines, there are certain elements I really want the performer to nail. It comes down to a certain balance of the reverb and noise of the guitar with the vocals and the melodies. Everyone who makes this music is aware of that framework and there’s a large supply of technically competent shoegaze out there. Where I’ve found artists struggle most is in that “program component” area: a lot of shoegaze will sound the way I want, but it’s hard to make it feel personal and meaningful, which is how the formula can be transcended.

I found this album on Bandcamp by Vyva Melinkolya, and it stands out because of how it nails the technical aspects of shoegaze while also having a personal touch — it’s a melding of the shoegaze formula with the type of intimate recordings that Bandcamp makes possible. On a technical level, the sound of this album is like a tribute to all the shoegazers of the past, and it’s easy to hear the inspiration from Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and others. But what I really love about it is how it has a real sense of individuality and purpose. While shoegaze can so easily be impersonal and focused purely on aesthetics, this album suggests that, beneath all the layers of reverb and noise, it can be a way for an artist to express their true self.

Alyc Diaz is the artist here, and this self-titled album really feels like it reflects her personality and experiences, even if a lot of it is kept under a veil of noise. To that end, she helps with any problems deciphering the lyrics by adding intimate little notes on each song on Bandcamp, which could have been handwritten in a different era. They give the impression of an artist who is passionate about this style of music and is trying to figure out who she is. The note on “Identity” says it’s “about a lot of things. Gender, trauma, seeing things that aren’t there, transitioning.” In the song, she sings “I look in the mirror, don’t even know me.”

The uncertainty in the lyrics is a natural match for the shoegaze style, which can allow a singer to remain hidden from view. Beneath the sheets of guitar, Diaz carves out a little world for herself, proving the universal power of shoegaze: it doesn’t care about your gender, the language you speak, or really anything else as long as you can get that chemistry right. In track after track, Diaz finds the right balance of loudness and quiet and ugliness and beauty.

Her talents are immediately present on the first track, “Love’s Easy Years (Nonbinary Heartbreak).” Its title, which references the Cocteau Twins’ “Love’s Easy Tears,” along with the heavy opening riff make it instantly clear that she knows the history of this music and how to recreate it. There is a feeling of longing in the song and its lyrics, when Diaz insists “love’s easy years will come to me if I truly believe.” Like the rest of this album, this song functions as an ode to what makes shoegaze great and as a powerful personal statement.