Team Dresch – “Personal Best”

Right now, maybe the biggest story here in Minnesota is over a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that would limit marriage to a man and a woman. My school recently came out as “neutral” regarding the amendment, a non-stance that infuriated a good chunk of the student body and has led to endless debate on various Facebook pages.  I don’t intend to get into a huge rant about this issue here, but the continued fight for LGBT (and all those other letters) rights reminded me of Team Dresch, and their 1995 album Personal Best — an album that captured so many of these hot-button issues back in the mid-90’s and still feels fresh today because of it.

Part of the greatness of “Personal Best” is that it offered a point-of-view that is exceedingly rare in music, especially rock music. Every member of Team Dresch was openly lesbian, something that deeply affected their songwriting. Like most Riot Grrrl albums, Personal Best focuses frequently on women’s issues, but it also expands into other LGBT-related subject matter that stands out because so few songs are written about it. No canonized dude-rock band has ever made a song like “Freewheel,” which focuses on a girl/girl relationship and includes the kiss-off line “go back to your boyfriend.”

Due to the makeup of the band and the songs themselves, Personal Best feels like one of the truest punk albums out there, an authentic collection of anthems for outsiders and the disenfranchised. And, like most of the music from the Riot Grrrl movement, it oozes passion and intensity in every note. It has that feeling of music that was made because it had to be heard and it has something important to say, not because the band felt like throwing together some songs or wanted to cash a paycheck.

This is most apparent on “She’s Amazing,” one of the most inspiring and vital songs to come out of the Riot Grrrl movement. Dedicated to an outspoken female role model (there’s another subject not seen in many rock songs), it could easily apply to the entire movement itself, which was full of outspoken members that “many people will try to destroy.” On a similar note, “1 Chance Pirate TV” turns the Sinead O’Connor SNL incident into one of the album’s most memorable songs, as it sprints out of the gate with an angry punk guitar riff before slowing down into a tone of resigned acceptance with the refrain “sometimes it feels alright.” Elsewhere, the band targets the Christian right on the appropriately titled “Hate the Christian Right!”

Personal Best has 10 songs that zip by in just 24 minutes, but it leaves a significant impression. It’s punk at its best, combining the personal and political, inspiration and outrage, and bringing it all together with good old fashioned quality songwriting. From start to finish, it holds up as arguably the strongest album of the Riot Grrrl movement, and it feels more important now than ever. In many ways, it feels like the soundtrack to a revolution that is now in full swing.

The xx — “Coexist”

The xx’s self-titled debut seemed to come out of nowhere in 2009. It was an album that sounded like nothing else at the time and displayed a very young band that had a shockingly developed sound, making use of minimalist electronics and space to create perfect late-night soundscapes. But all those elements that made it great also made it age poorly for me: after burning through it that year with seemingly hundreds of listens, I’ve rarely revisited it in the last couple of years. Once that out-of-nowhere element of surprise was gone, I became sick of the album’s sound and found that there was little to it beyond the surface.

Nonetheless, I was interested to hear their new album Coexist, because I still remember that feeling of first discovering their debut. I also think it’s a fascinating case study in how a young band tries to live up to massive expectations after such a successful first album — especially one like The xx, who carved out such a specific, well-defined niche that it seemed like there may not even be anything left to explore. I was curious if they would expand their sound, change their songwriting style, or pull any other tricks to separate this from their debut.

But in the back of my head, I pretty much knew what Coexist was going to be, and that’s what makes it so disappointing. It’s not that it’s horrible or something: if you liked the first album, chances are you’ll like this one. But that’s also kind of the problem. While most artists I really respect throw curveballs at their audience, Coexist is a lazy softball right down the middle. It’s the musical equivalent of a “meets expectations” grade in elementary school. It does everything that you expect it to — no more, no less — and then kind of evaporates after you listen to it, completely failing to leave any sort of impression.

At least those were my initial thoughts, but I have a habit of unhealthily analyzing my own opinions. And I thought: “what the hell did I expect?” It’s not like The xx were going to release a prog-metal psychedelic rock opera or an album of acoustic ukulele folk songs. This is just what they do. And if I liked what they did before (at least for a time), why wouldn’t I now? Am I so starved for experimentation and change that I can’t just enjoy music for what it is?

That may be the case, but I also think the songs on Coexist just aren’t as good as they were on the debut. Nothing on it is nearly as memorable as “VCR” or “Crystalised,” which had legitimate hooks to go with the band’s spare music. The exception is opening track “Angels,” a beautiful song by Romy Madley-Croft that is actually more minimal than anything on the debut but still manages to make a pretty big impact. The rest of the album just feels like The xx is trapped in the tiny musical world they created on the debut, with all the hushed male-female vocals and samey lyrics about love. (“Reunion” sounds kind of like what an xx parody band would come up with if such a horrible, misguided idea ever came into existence.) They make an effort to occasionally incorporate some dance beats, but they never quite gel with the music. Jamie Smith’s production is slick as usual, but most of the album feels underwritten in a way that the debut managed to avoid despite its bare-bones style.

The good news for The xx is that they’re still young and talented. Also, they’re already much more successful than I will ever be at anything I do in my life. And who knows, maybe Coexist appeals to their die-hard fans who want to hear more of the same stuff instead of someone like me, who always loves it when artists change up their sound and actively antagonize their core audience. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone really being blown away by Coexist when it’s so similar to what they’ve already heard before.

The Wonderful Craziness of Afrirampo

Part of my ongoing battle with finding new music I like is that too many of the popular artists today are… normal. Social media has narrowed the distance between listeners and artists, and it’s also exposed that many musicians aren’t mysterious, eccentric geniuses, but are actually fairly well-adjusted people who have a passion for music and a strong work ethic. This has been good for people who like music that speaks strongly to their real-life situation, but for me music has always been a means of escape from my sometimes painfully boring life. This might be why I tend to gravitate towards artists that are very different from myself — women, crazy sonic geniuses, aggressive punk rockers, etc.

My craving for this kind of weird escapist music eventually took me away from the US entirely, all the way to Japan, which for years now has been known for a thriving noise-rock scene. My favorite band from there so far is Afrirampo, a duo comprised of Oni on guitar/vocals and Pikachu on drums/vocals. They play a style of rock music that simply doesn’t exist in America, a combination of gleeful Slits-like punk, Sonic Youth noise, poppy intertwining vocal melodies, occasionally nonsense lyrics, and garage rock riffing. They also incorporated some African influences after the two went to Cameroon and lived with pygmy tribes in 2004. Frequently, all of their varied influences were present in a single song, some of which spread over several maniacal minutes.

Afrirampo appeals a lot to me because they’re just so out there compared to the kind of artists you’re likely to be exposed to in the United States, even if you’re a fairly adventurous listener. Nobody sounds like them, or could really even aspire to sound much like them. And while a lot of new music today strikes me as drab, Afrirampo’s music is incredibly exciting and fun. They play with such exuberance that it’s contagious, and it’s hard not to be in a good mood listening to them. A lot of people will surely find their roller-coaster style unlistenable, but nobody can ever call them boring (which I think is the worst thing music can be).

Afrirampo were initially known for their aggressive noise-making tendencies when playing live, but on their albums they display a wider range of sounds, with some quieter ethereal moments and psychedelic passages to go along with the bursts of noise and adrenaline. All of their varied styles coalesced on what I consider to be their magnum opus, the 2010 double album We Are Uchu No Ko, which was released just a month before the band chose to break up. In its 80 minutes, the album seems to have every element of rock music imaginable. It has three songs that stretch over the ten minute mark, and most of disc two is one long piece that is split into five different parts. It’s psychedelic, crazy, and fun, and a perfect introduction to Afrirampo’s unique style.

Most of Afrirampo’s music isn’t available on Spotify or other free sites, but it’s worth seeking out if you enjoy music that is a bit weird. I’ve linked one of my favorite songs by them below.

Lotus Plaza – “Spooky Action at a Distance”

Atlanta indie-rockers Deerhunter initially gained notoriety for frontman Bradford Cox’s flamboyant personality, wild stage antics, and experimental pop songwriting. But while Cox has always dominated the headlines for the band, their most recent album, 2010’s Halcyon Digest, showcased their secret weapon: guitarist Lockett Pundt, who stepped out of Cox’s shadow and produced the best song on the album with “Desire Lines,” a 7-minute spacey shoegaze centerpiece that managed to sound epic without really trying.

Spooky Action at a Distance is the second album Pundt has released under the Lotus Plaza moniker, and it’s about what you would expect from the guy who penned “Desire Lines”: non-stop guitar jams that make skillful use of repetition to turn tunes that seem like they should be ordinary into epic, surprisingly catchy rock songs. Deerhunter fans like me that prefer their anthemic guitar-rock side to their bedroom pop side are sure to love it, and it’s probably my most listened-to album of 2012 so far.

Pundt doesn’t have the big personality that Cox does, but he has a quiet confidence that suits his laid-back style, and his lyrics that are often about nostalgic yearning are also a nice match for his bright, summery guitar lines. Songs like “Monoliths” and “Remember Our Days” are about simple themes like friendship and childhood, but Pundt infuses them with just enough personality and hooks to make them into effortless anthems. Pundt never sounds like he’s trying too hard, even on a song like “Jet Out of the Tundra” that launches into a lengthy, repetitive instrumental similar to that of “Desire Lines.”

Nothing on Spooky Action at a Distance sounds that groundbreaking, particularly with this summery guitar-pop being trendy in recent years. The shoegaze style always will bring comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, but Pundt mixes it up a bit with some acoustic strumming on songs like “Black Buzz” and “Dusty Rhodes.” Some of the songs also have a driving rhythm reminiscent of Stereolab, which pushes the music forward and helps keep Pundt’s specifically defined style from overstaying its welcome. Mostly, Pundt separates himself from the competition by simply executing the songs better and with more consistency. There are no weak songs on the album, and they all seem to get better the more you listen to them. He has a style that is relaxing but also engaging, and I find it difficult to stop listening to the album when I only intended to play a single song off of it.

Overall, Spooky Action is a significant step forward for Pundt, who deserves to be more than just “that other guy in Deerhunter.” In fact, I prefer this album to any of the Deerhunter or Atlas Sound albums so far. It’s not trying so hard and doesn’t feel labored over, and it’s not caught up in trying to be “important.” Much like the man who made it, it seems to succeed and transcend effortlessly.

Listen to it on Spotify

Discovery: Antena

One of my dorky music-related hobbies is looking into the past to try to figure out where some of my favorite bands came from. I spend a lot of time browsing on allmusic.com and surfing Wikipedia or last.fm to try to piece the whole puzzle together. Every so often it pays dividends and I find something cool that I may not have ever heard otherwise.

In this case I stumbled across Antena, a band named for French singer/songwriter Isabel Antena. A couple of my favorite bands are Broadcast and Stereolab, who played sophisticated electronic pop with some experimental tendencies, and it’s easy to see Antena as an early influence on both of them. The most obvious comparison to Isabel Antena is Stereolab frontwoman Laetitia Sadier, who was also French and had an elegant way of singing, but she also reminds me of Broadcast’s Trish Keenan whose voice had similarly detached, airy qualities that hovered above the music.

Musically, Antena reminds me a lot of Young Marble Giants, whose album Colossal Youth was released around the same time the band formed. Their sound is similarly austere, with electronic synths and drum machine rhythms. What makes Antena sound different from all these other groups is that they infused samba rhythms into the music, giving them a more tropical, summery feel. It’s an interesting combination that I hadn’t really heard before and is part of what has gotten me instantly hooked on the band.

So far I’ve only listened to the band’s 1982 compilation Camino Del Sol, which comprises nearly all of their early music. It’s full of some really cool songs, but so far my favorite is the title track which shows off most of the band’s strengths. You can listen to that song below, or the full album on Spotify here. If you’re into this brand of sophisticated electro-pop, they’re definitely worth a listen.

What Makes a Great Guitarist?

On May 3rd, Spin released their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. The list — which contained non-guitarists like Skrillex and omitted famed guitar players like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page — was lambasted by most music writers I follow and the general populace, who accused it of being trollish clickbaiting and accused the magazine of being contrarian just for the sake of it. I find those accusations to be at least partially true, but at the same time found myself loving the Spin list, which took a tired subject matter and breathed some life into it with a different perspective.

The first thing people need to know about any list, especially a music list, is that it’s subjective. This seems really obvious, but every time one of these magazines puts out this kind of list, there are always the commenters who need to step in line first and complain about how so-and-so wasn’t on the list, or that some guy was ranked ahead of some other guy. Don’t be fooled by the title: the Spin list was not intended to be an objective ranking of the greatest guitarists; it was meant to be a rethinking of what it even means to be a great guitarist, and a sort of counterargument to the Rolling Stone-led hagiography of 50s-70s music.

The other thing the Spin list was trying to accomplish — and succeeded at — was exposing readers to different kinds of artists than you usually see on great guitarists lists.  As someone who loves making music lists and reading them, I think that the ideal list should make you think and it should expose you to music you may not have heard before. If you’re reading this blog or Spin or any other music criticism, I would hope that it’s for that reason, and not because you want to have your pre-existing opinions validated by some random writer.

With their list, Spin challenged readers, and frankly most of them weren’t up to it. They just wanted to read the list and see the same names they always see on these things, as if someone’s opinion that Jimi Hendrix was a really good guitarist somehow needed more validation from a music magazine in order to be legitimate.

Spin‘s views on what makes a great guitarist mirror my own somewhat closely. My opinion on it is this: the point of music is to make you feel emotion and to make you think. Guitar is one way to do that, and certainly having a lot of technical ability on the instrument helps. But at a certain point, if things get too technical or show-offy, the emotion in the music is lost and it simply becomes an exercise in the guitarist showing off his skills. I’ve never related to the canonized list of great guitarists, which always has placed an emphasis on masturbatory guitar solos and pure technical skill over the ability to conjure emotion, when the entire point of music is that it should make you feel things.

Take Kurt Cobain. He is usually ranked high on these guitarist lists, and in any comments section you can bet there are multiple people saying that “he could barely play guitar” or that “he only played three chords.” But none of that is really important. What’s important is that Cobain was the guitarist of a guitar-driven band that had a massive emotional impact on tons of people. So how is he not a great guitarist? Cobain may not have been show-offy on the guitar, but he used it to make people feel things on a visceral level, which is what a guitarist should do.

The guitarists on these lists that I usually can’t stand — and weren’t on the Spin list — are guys like Jimmy Page and Stevie Ray Vaughan. In the case of Page, I accept that he is a skilled guitar player who hammered out some classic riffs, but I’ve never been able to emotionally connect to a Led Zeppelin song, partially because there never seemed like a purpose to his excessive playing and partially because of their incredibly dumb lyrics. Vaughan, on the other hand, is by all accounts an immensely skilled player, but I can’t believe that people actually listen to his music. After about a minute I’m bored and think “I get it, you can play a lot of notes on the guitar in rapid succession.”

But these are just my opinions, and they’re probably different from yours. That’s why music is great, and that’s what made the Spin list great. It embraced the inherent subjectivity of these lists, and instead put the focus on a different group of artists that are rarely recognized by the music elite (like, you know, women). In doing so, they pissed off a lot of self-righteous guitar snobs and stupid internet commenters, but for people with an actual open mind it sparked a lot of interesting discussion.

Minnesota’s Insufferable Music Scene

Are bands like Trampled By Turtles overexposed in Minnesota?

Last weekend, local radio station The Current hosted their annual Rock the Garden music festival, which takes place at the Walker Art Center and has typically been a collection of relatively big name indie artists. Previous headliners included artists with national followings like Neko Case, My Morning Jacket, and The Decemberists, with usually one local act thrown in. However, this year, four of the five headliners — Howler, Doomtree, Trampled by Turtles, and The Hold Steady — were Minnesota-based groups. That sent a clear message from the folks at The Current: “Our local music is amazing, and we don’t need bands from anywhere else.”

The Rock the Garden lineup was subject to quite a bit of criticism, because what was supposed to be a chance to see artists that don’t play in Minnesota all the time turned into another exercise in The Current and Minnesotans patting themselves on the back for all of the supposedly great music that has come from the area. This is nothing new. It’s part of an increasing and ongoing obsession with local music that has baffled me for months now.

It could just be a problem on my end, because I’ve never really understood the appeal of local music in the first place. To me, music is music. A guitar played in California or England makes the same sound as one played in Minnesota. This may seem obvious, but around here there is an unhealthy love for bands that I don’t think anyone would care about if they hadn’t formed in a place that was located near where they live. The Minnesota music scene is like the child of average intelligence who has overbearing parents that insist that they are “special.”

In this simile, the overbearing parent is The Current, who relentlessly shoves these bands down our throat, either because people inexplicably want to hear them all the time or because they want to establish credibility by linking themselves to local bands made good. Turn your dial to 89.3 or stream online, and chances are you’ll hear the end of a mediocre song, followed by one of the DJs gushing over the “great, great local band” that produced it. There’s also a local music blog, filled with embarrassing fawning posts like Is Minnesota Music in a Golden Age? (answer: yes). It’s rare to see any sort of criticism directed towards the local music scene here, which is why it was shocking when 19-year old Howler frontman Jordan Gatesmith spoke out in an interview with The Guardian:

Yeah, it’s weird, because you know the ’80s saw a great hardcore and punk rock scene, Hüsker Dü kind of being the leaders of it, and The Replacements as well. And Prince was there, which was a whole different thing all together. Completely different. But yeah, I feel like there’s this giant lull period of like 30 years. We had Tapes ’N Tapes kind of come out for a little bit, so that was kind of interesting, but the scene right now is interesting. It really supports its own bands, like they’ll build up these bands—no offense, Minneapolis—that I will hate. I will completely hate. But they’ll like sell out the biggest room in Minneapolis.

There’s this band called the 4onthefloor, for example, and the gimmick is that they play, you know, they have four kick drums, and they all play the kick drum on the floor, and they’re like Mumford & Sons crap. I’m sorry. But that will get huge. They’ll do like crazy big venues, then everyone will be like, ‘Yeah! 4onthefloor is the band to watch! Everyone get ready!’ And then, of course, nothing will happen outside of Minneapolis for them.

Of course, this statement quickly set off a local firestorm. “How could he say that about all of our wonderful Minnesota bands?” seemingly everyone wondered. I’m no fan of Gatesmith or his music and think he probably could use a good slap in the face, but his points about the local scene struck me as fairly accurate. When I hear most of the local music that is getting airplay, none of it seems particularly groundbreaking or exciting. Let’s face it: Trampled By Turtles, Doomtree, Atmosphere, and Cloud Cult aren’t exactly Husker Du, The Replacements, Prince, and Bob Dylan. These are middle-of-the-road indie bands at best that have been elevated to god-like status because they happen to be from Minnesota. They may be popular among locals and might occasionally appear on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, but they are not innovators and are not bands that anyone will care about 10 years from now.

I don’t mean to criticize all local music. I support a few local bands, but because I think they make good music that is worthwhile, not because they are local. These are the kinds of bands that are usually ignored by the local media hype cycle, which focuses on artists with a more accessible sound that have a chance to be “the next big thing” rather than groups that are experimenting and doing things differently. When The Current plays a local band that ends up getting national press, they can go back and say that they played them from the beginning, and I think that drives a lot of their decision-making. This is also why they fawn indulgently over every local band — so that when Trampled By Turtles ends up playing the coveted 5:45 day two slot at Bonnaroo, they can take some of the credit.

More than anything else, this fixation on local music is bizarre to me because it seems so counter to everything that makes living in 2012 great. These days, you can find music from anywhere. I’ve discovered bands from all over the world that I probably never would have heard of if not for the internet, and sites like bandcamp make it incredibly easy to have access to their music. So it just doesn’t make sense to me that people limit their exposure and focus on this one random area when there is so much great stuff out there and readily available. It seems archaic.

A local radio station like The Current should play some local music, but right now it does it at the expense of other, far more interesting bands that are implied to be less worthy because they’re not from the right area. My ideal radio station is one that exposes me to cool music I might not find otherwise, which is why it bums me out that The Current has chosen to instead suck up to bands that are already overexposed, repeatedly playing them in the same way that a pop station plays Katy Perry.

For all I know, this could be the kind of thing that happens in all major areas. There is obviously a natural inclination to think that your home state is culturally better than others. But from my vantage point, Minnesotans are unusually proud of a music scene that hasn’t really done anything noteworthy in a long time. It would be nice if everyone could tone down the love, have a bit of perspective, and admit that maybe these bands and our state aren’t as special as we think.