Well, I Guess This is Growing Up: Blink 182’s Pop-Punk Revival

It was 1997, and Blink-182 were a group of absurdly crass upstarts who managed to write the rock song of the summer,”Dammit.”  The song’s themes of maturity and growing up caused it to become a classic single, and it remains legendary within the punk community.  Written by bassist Mark Hoppus, it tells the story of a breakup and the difficulty of seeing the former partner moving on and entering a relationship with someone else.  It ignited the beginning of an era, and in the late 90’s and early 00’s no pop-punk band could supplant Blink-182 because no one could write songs that were both immature yet inconceivably wise.

And you’ve been there for too long

To face this on your own

Well, I guess this is growing up

“Dammit” exemplifies Blink’s seemingly contradictory style of immature wisdom, and it has proved to be poignantly prescient in the past few years.  Mark Hoppus, guitarist Tom DeLonge, and drummer Travis Barker seemed to be inseparable friends, but Tom caused turmoil when he left the band to pursue his UFO obsession.

The subsequent fallout has been messy, and nostalgic 90’s babies who remember the band fondly have had to watch helplessly as one of their idolized childhood bands splinters and separates.   Unsurprisingly, fractured relationships is a central theme of Californina, their first album in six years.  Released last week, the album is the band’s first without Tom and their first with Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba.  So for those of you who want to hear more of Tom’s nasally singing reminiscent of his famous “Where are you / and I’m so sorry” from “I Miss You,” you will not find it here.

Instead, Matt Skiba’s voice adds something that comes curiously close to solemn sentimentality, which was always rare from Blink’s past six studio albums.  Yes, Blink has always been capable of writing heartbreaking tunes (about suicide – “Adam’s Song”, or about divorce – “Stay Together for the Kids”) but they always returned to their pop-punk juvenile ways.  Skiba only sings in small doses, mostly ceding the floor to founder and band leader Hoppus, but when Skiba is called upon to do the vocals it makes for a pleasant change.

The change is so noticeable and the breakup lyrics so ripe with double meaning alluding to Tom’s departure that California is practically a concept album.  On the opener, “Cynical,” Hoppus laments,

 

There’s a cynical feeling saying I should give up
You said everything you’ll ever say
There’s a moment of panic when I hear the phone ring
Anxiety’s calling in my head

Is it back again?
Are you back again?

Receiving endless phone calls from his band manager or Tom himself about the state of Blink-182 must have been tormenting, and knowing a long lasting relationship was spiraling towards its doom?  Heart-breaking.  “Cynical” clocks in just under two minutes, but it leaves enough time for Skiba–from Tom’s point of view, perhaps–to respond to Hoppus’ cynicism, “What’s the point of saying sorry now? / Lost my voice fighting my way out.”

A lot of the album continues in this manner, but even in Tom’s absence, California sounds exactly like another Blink-182 album.  Which is as it should be.  On “Bored to Death,” the spacey drum intro and snappy guitar riff immediately signal that Blink-182 has returned.  Mark Hoppus would not even need to sing a note to make that evidently clear.

While Blink-182 has always been Hoppus’ brainchild, without the return of drummer Travis Barker this new album would have been a failure.  His unique style and relentless work ethic has sustained the band’s success and has proved necessary to maintaining their trademark sound.  His unique expressionless calm while performing combined with his absurdly fast drum rhythms continue to balance out his colleague’s volatile immaturity in such a way that holds the band together.  On “No Future,” he backs a potentially boring first verse with a drum pattern so interesting that it steals the show.  After listening to the album a couple dozen times I still unintentionally ignore the lyrics and am held hostage by Barker’s talent.

Despite the success of the throwback sound, Blink-182 are trapped in their melancholy nostalgia and angst a little too long.  Perhaps that comes with getting older, but California is much too long and it would have better suited their style if they had made something more concise.  Even though the 16 song album is only 43 minutes long, a lot of the songs accomplish their goal at their halfway point.

They also fall for a few clichéd traps, such as the tiresome pandering to “kings of the weekend” who have “no self control,” but even then their explanation of why they included it on the record (at first “Kings of the Weekend” was not at all close to the final cut) makes sense in almost an endearing kind of way.  And the song very nearly redeems itself with the line “Friday nights always saved my life / from the worst of times we ever had / thank God for punk rock bands.”  Later, on the de facto closer “California,” they sing about the depressing aspects of suburbia in a wholly unoriginal way, which is unfortunate because the song had the potential to join their podium of ballads.

Nonetheless, Blink-182 have once again made a good album, and after being around for a quarter-century, that is saying something.  They capture well the spirit of middle-aged malaise surrounding relationships and purpose, one that is entirely familiar and unchanged from their youth–for better or for worse.  It should also be noted that California dethroned Drake’s Views from the Billboard top albums chart.  It is Blink-182’s first number one album in over fifteen years, which is pretty incredible.

Twice during the album Hoppus pays tribute to the band’s infectious adolescent energy.  “Built this Pool” and “Brohemian Rhapsody” are seventeen and thirty seconds long, respectively, and the only lyrics on either of them are “woo woo / I wanna see some naked dudes / that’s why I built this pool,” and “There’s something about you / that I can’t quite put my finger in.”  Those only interested in the band’s golden age might frown upon California, but they will smile at these little quips and heed their message within the album’s larger narrative.  It is a familiar one, after all:  Well, I guess this is growing up?  Fuck you I’ll still hold on to my childish ways for as long as I can.  It sucks and the inevitability is suffocating, but you never have to grow up too much.

A tank of gas is a treasure to me

I know now nothing is free                      – “Carousel”  1994

 

My friends say I should act my age

What’s my age again?

What’s my age again?                               – “What’s My Age Again” 1999

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Julianna Barwick’s Pure Will

Will

noun
noun: will; plural noun: wills
1.  the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.
“she has an iron will”

synonyms: determination, willpower, strength of character, resolution, resolve, resoluteness, single-mindedness, purposefulness, drive, commitment, dedication, doggedness, tenacity, tenaciousness, staying power
“the will to succeed”

It is almost impossible to read about Julianna Barwick without learning about her biggest influence as a musician.  She grew up on a farm in Louisiana, and it was there that she would venture into her back pasture, climb into the hollow spaces of a massive tree, and sing.  Her voice would reverberate and echo through the different chambers, and as she crawled though the holes and laid in its branches, the tree nurtured her desire to make soothing musical masterpieces.  She calls the tree, “the magic place.”

She also spent a lot of time in church singing in a choir, and it shows.  By looping her own voice on top of itself and layering them over notes of piano and strings, she paints a very pastoral mood.  “Envelop,” the opening track from her major label debut, is a very good example of her style.  It begins with just her voice, which she then records and loops over and over again, slowly magnifying it with simple piano, violin and cello riffs.

Given how stunningly magnificent her first proper album was, Barwick’s sophomore effort was highly anticipated, and resulted in another fantastic project, Nepenthe.  The video of standout “Forever,” gives me chills every time I watch it.  It shows Barwick recording the song in an abandoned swimming pool (which has been transformed into a recording studio) with an all-girls Icelandic choir.  You can see the joy on their faces as they make something awesome.

Admittedly I was not excited when her third album was announced in March.  Barwick’s formula is predictable and I perceived it to be stagnant and without much room for growth.  But when Will was released on May 6, I was proved astoundingly wrong.  It is her best album to date.

Her first and second albums were 44 and 42 minutes respectively, and while her music is gorgeous, its simple nature can grow boring in that time.  Will does not have that fault, and it is the perfect length for Barwick to succinctly display her craft. In 39 minutes she packs a more emotional punch than most other musicians can in twice that time using lyrics.

For example, “Nebula,” the first released single off the album, is perhaps the most stark, somber tune that Barwick has ever written.  Fittingly, the music video is very dark and haunting, and not necessarily a comfortable watch.  What is truly beautiful about it, however, is every time she sings the lights come on.  Voice as light is a sweet yet fleeting notion, because the darkness returns to envelop Barwick as she is forced to release the note and draw breath.

“Nebula” sticks out on Will a little like a sore thumb–it is bizarrely out of character.  Among the synonyms for “will” is single-mindedness, the only relatively negative idea surrounding the word.  Barwick knows that her style can at times be dull, repetitive and unbecoming of most moods, but her dedication to her art is largely positive.  While she may be stubbornly making music that can be perceived as monotonous, the end result is a testament to her willpower and strength.

The following 31 minutes after “Nebula” are symbolic of this, most especially the final song, “See, Know.”  The album closer plays like a victory lap, like a resounding emergence of light.  Even though Barwick’s voice takes a backseat, the driving synths and percussion give the song a triumphant nature.  It is the first Julianna Barwick song to include drums and cymbals, which contributes greatly to this feeling of accomplishment.

In order to understand the magnitude of this album, it is helpful to remember the magic place.  The tree must be very old and wise, and did not grow in haste.  Julianna Barwick did not arrive at this point quickly either, and her slow, deliberate growth as an artist has become a tribute to her childhood refuge.  On Will, she shows how powerful her commitment truly is, and by the end of it she is basking in the glory of achieving her goal.  And just like the magic place, she is not done growing.

The Bipolar Genius of Titus Andronicus Lyricist Patrick Stickles, Part Two

This is part two in a series of posts exploring the motivations behind American punk rock lyricist and lead singer Patrick Stickles. Part one delved into the history of his band Titus Andronicus and gave a brief introduction into their first three albums. This part will focus on their newest release, The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Read part one here.

Titus Andronicus (+@) is no stranger to music that at first glance seems bombastic and overzealous. Their claim to fame was, after all, a concept album about how the U.S. Civil War is like living in New Jersey suburbia in the wake of a breakup.  As silly and incompatible as that sounds, The Monitor’s success ended up proving that there were many who identified with +@’ brand of cathartic self loathing, productive flaw exploring and ostentatious yet resigned commitment.  A band that is named after Shakespeare’s most infamous play, however, is still a tough sell (to put it mildly) and their most recent album relies heavily on their base.  It is not a work of art that attempts to pamper to wider audience, but appeals greatly as a reverent punk rock deity for genre die hards.

Probably with that in mind, +@ announced very early that their plan was to write a 30 song behemoth about a protagonist suffering from bipolar disorder. The concept album has origins in classical music (i.e. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition) and bands such as The Who, Styx, Green Day, Genesis, and most famously Pink Floyd all showed that the medium could be well received, despite their intimidatingly ambitious nature. By throwing down the gauntlet and stating that he essentially aimed to match or better such darlings as The Who’s Tommy, Quadrophenia, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall he challenged himself into expressing his most powerful emotions as a musician, artist and human being. He invited all the scrutiny and skepticism that came with that ambition in the hopes that it brought out the best in his songwriting.

It worked. Just like The Monitor five years ago, Stickles and +@ have proved that no one is their rock opera peer and that they are the pinnacle of punk rock story telling. The Most Lamentable Tragedy (TMLT) is exploratory as well as a familiar home. It includes new tricks such as covers, choral arrangements and a chord organ recording on a cassette tape. And of course there are the conflicting fault exposing lyrics embedded in triumphant anthems delivered in Stickles’ trademark raging yet vindicating vocals.

Designed in five acts, TMLT is congested and risks being forgotten among tiresome clichés.  But +@ was never meant for the lazy music listener, and with the help of copious footnoted lyrics (provided by Stickles himself) the original story of a man with bipolar disorder is told.

**********NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD**********


TMLT begins with a multi-layered unison note which gets drowned out in a mother chord.  This peaceful then sonically harsh transition represents the hero awakening from a blissful sleep and realizing with immense dread that a new day is upon him.  After the brief opening instrumental, +@ erupts in a majestic guitar riff and Stickles begins the opera by announcing his resigned mood, “Some days start with an earthquake / the bed shakes until it breaks / and I hate to be awake.”  With this opening statement, he immediately announces his psychological illness without alienating his wider audience: the dread in which we wake up to face the routine stresses of the day is a universal emotion.

The following song “Stranded (On My Own)” describes Stickles’ addiction to Ritalin.  In order to even get out of bed to fulfill his responsibilities and overcome his anxieties, Stickles takes all sorts of drugs. In his own words:

“I was obligated to participate in Titus Andronicus’ National Business Tour, promoting our then-current release ‘Local Business,’ which had been recorded when the Major Depressive Episode was just a baby. This tour proved to be a blessing – I think that if I had stayed in exile out in New Jersey any longer, I might have stayed there forever, on one side of the ground or another.  Unable to know that at the time, I slogged through the whole trip, clinging to my Bupropion and Abillify and my Clonazepam, thinking that if I could just keep some kind of equilibrium and ‘just not lose it,’ I could make it through this terrifying endeavor.”

And that’s only track number three.  The next track “Lonely Boy” is weirdly catchy for a +@ song has the most sing-along potential out of anything on the album.  Expressing his desire to be alone, Stickles sings about how other people are selfish and arrogant pricks.  “Hearing people hearing themselves talk / I tell you those are fingernails where there should’ve been chalk / I heard this one guy tell this other one to suck his cock / And he was the richest, smartest guy on the block.”  Against societies misgivings, +@ unfurls a white flag and declares the crippling weight of materialism and patriarchal power structures too much to handle.

I just want to be alone
I don’t wanna drown amongst the droves of drones
I don’t wanna hear that I’m what I own, oh no
I don’t wanna feel my Y-chromosome

Tracks seven through twelve make up the second act, in which the protagonist emerges from his depression.  They are easily the album’s best, and as much as I want to, I will not delve into the details.  Experiencing them for the first time is a gift.

The last three acts make up the second half of the album, and that is where the protagonist struggles to come to terms with his “normalcy,” encounters romance, and again slides into a deep depression.

And when he finally ventures into the world, it is imperfect, even repulsive.  After briefly referencing his eating disorder as the instigator in his going out in “(S)HE SAID, (S)HE SAID,” he meets a girl who he is attracted to.  He rather vulgarly and pervertedly asks her if she’d like to sleep with him over the course of two verses (she agrees), but the sad and revealing bit comes later.  “You didn’t understand a single thing (s)he said” Stickles repeats over and over again.  What the story’s hero needs is love and human connection, but he doesn’t know how to ask for it.

The subtleties of reading in between the dense lines of Stickles writing is one of the reasons why +@ and other pretentious rock groups are not mainstream today.  “(S)HE SAID, (S)HE SAID” is a great song, but its nine minute length combined with the sly lyrical connections to earlier songs (“My Eating Disorder,” from Local Business) make it tedious for most, especially first time listeners.  And with its odd pacing and darker chord structures, the latter half of TMLT test the will of even the most diligent Titus Heads.

In his review for The Guardian, music critic Alexis Petridis stated that TMLT is an honorable effort in the age of the playlist.  It contains “good songs ripe for cherry-picking and tearing out of context,” but overall is a fractured and poorly paced drama who’s sheer length is wearying and “widely over-inflated.”  What is particularly striking about this critique is how insensitive and uninformed it is.  TMLT is a rock opera about living life with bipolar disorder.  Life by experience is a series of up and downs.  For those who live with mental illness, their emotional flights are followed by sometimes intensely harsh groundings.  And they have no control over it.  If +@’ new album were as cohesive and fluid as Petridis wants, then he may as well just put on a boring Arctic Monkeys record and call it a day.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy ends with the same unison note with which it started.  For those who think that such a clichéd move is corny and lame, just know that it is Stickles’ experience.  He lives an uncontrollable cycle of mania and depression, and when one ends, the other begins.  As tiresome as that may be, that is the way life is.

IMG_1975

Comeback Artist of the Year Enya Brings Back the Calm

We live in a pop culture of weird, and for whatever reason the only thing that is talked about is shock value.  Lady Gaga’s videos were the new Madonna’s–but oh wait, Madonna is still trying to be relevant and be risqué.

When it comes to music video culture, weird rules out.  And when the weird piques our curiosity, sales go up simply because the American public cannot resist looking.  As proof, look no further than Lady Gaga’s latest involvement, American Horror Story: Hotel.  The show’s negative reviews after the first episode appeared to prove that story and substance still play an important role in the consumption of art, but nonetheless the second episode earned the second best rating ever for a telecast on the Fx network.

Meanwhile, Madonna is trying too hard to remain relevant with the same weird formula that she has relied on in the past, and, alas, it is working.  Her new video has close to 134 million views.  What really is depressing about her new effort is the desperation.  The fact that she felt the need to include dozens of celebrities lip singing “bitch I’m Madonna” is just a really sad effort to create popularity.  Enya, on the other hand, has not released an album in seven years and has the same number of albums sold as Beyoncé.

Granted, Enya has been around for much longer than Queen B, but in today’s day and age of trying to get rich as quickly as possible, her music feels like a cleanse, a baptism for all our sins.

“How long your love had sheltered me,” she sings, perhaps thinking upon how her loyal fans had given her enough wealth to lay low awhile.  This might be reading too much into the lyric, but Enya has never been one to forget her fans.  “Let me give this dream to you, each night and evermore,” she continues.

While Madonna and Beyoncé are praised for their studio productions and collaborations, Enya’s recording process takes an average of three years.  This separates her from all of her peers.  Taylor Swift is on her 1989 tour and is writing all of her new material while tired and on the road.  She’ll release her next album as quickly as possible, as she has for all of her works.  If other prominent pop artists took as much time as Enya to write, produce, and refine their music, the radio would be filled with lasting, meaningful songs instead of fads.

Enya has only released two songs from her forthcoming album, but it already feels like she is making a point: music is not meant to be fast food.  The last time I consumed her music so readily was during a particularly stressful finals period in college.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 3.09.50 AMAnd it is no accident that the last time I heard Enya’s soothing voice was during a family Settlers of Catan game.  This is why she is the comeback artist of the year in November.  We are going to stress out over the holidays and over life in general, but we should all take a moment and relax.  Everything will work itself out and it will be fine.

The Difficult Truths and the Almost Forgivable Lies of Straight Outta Compton

N.W.A. first popped up on my radar in the seventh grade.  I was in my woodworking class sitting next to a Black kid who with the exception of rhythmic mutterings under his breath was silent.  I do not remember his name and we hardly spoke.  I think we both took comfort in the soothing sounds of a dozen sanders, the smooth feeling of finished wood under our fingertips, the absence of a teachers’ droning.  In the socially exhausting routine of middle school, woodworking was our sanctuary.

I do not recall what our exact assignment was, but the boy next to me was carving something into his project.  I was curious, but was afraid to ask.  At any rate, I would see what the writing was eventually.  Unfortunately, the teacher dropped by and asked him point blank what word he was etching in the wood.  The boy seemed at first to cringe, but then he sat up in his chair and said with sass, “N.W.A.”

He got in trouble and was forced to replace the piece.

I was thoroughly perplexed.  At the time I did not question the teacher’s authority to do such a thing but I wanted very badly to know what the three letters meant.  I spent the rest of the workshop summoning up the courage to talk to him, and when the bell rang and we were in the hallway a safe distance from the class, I asked him what N.W.A. meant.

He looked at me, flashed a smile, and gave their full name.  After thanking him for enlightening me I walked to my locker and thought to myself, “well, no wonder he got in trouble.”


The seventh grade was when people started to call me “Dan Dan the Music Man” because I spent a lot of my time singing.  My musical taste was rudimentary–I listened to what my dad did, sought out musicals, and had yet to choose the 2000s over anything else.  But when the cute girl asked me what my favorite genre of music was I would lie straight-faced and say rap.  For someone who had 3 years to go before he even came close to puberty, I did anything to feel cool.

I did not fake it hard at all though.  I did not go home and look up songs by N.W.A.  I wish I had that day though, because it would have given me an introduction to the pioneer of a crucial and relevant musical genre in American history.  At twelve years old I certainly would not have understood the socio-economic and racial importance of the hip-hop group N.W.A., but it would have helped me talk to that kid in woodworking and perhaps we would have become friends.  Perhaps he could have introduced me into the harsh realities of their music and our world.


The highly successful N.W.A. biopic opened in theaters two weeks ago and the music lover and critic in me was absolutely salivating at the opportunity to see it.  The empath in me also became very aware of the intense feelings the movie would provoke.  Last week I went to see the film with my little seventeen year old brother–who is a more savvy rap fan than myself–and it was quite an experience.

From the opening sequence, the entire film shows the artistic motivations of N.W.A.  It is terrifying and infuriating to be Black in an inherently racist system, where the most viable ways to earn a living are illegal, and that no matter how successful they are, the struggle never stops.  Juxtaposed over various racially motivated acts of violence and other illicit activities, N.W.A.’s story is at times difficult to swallow.  But the film itself is so captivating that looking away would itself be a crime.  For someone who is so deeply affected by music, to see so many people brought together with gangsta rap was magical.

On the other hand, this is a biopic about a group that raps lyrics such as “So what about the bitch who got shot? Fuck her! /
You think I give a damn about a bitch? I ain’t a sucker!” and, “So we started lookin for the bitches with the big butts / Like her, but she keep cryin’, “I got a boyfriend,” Bitch stop lyin’ / Dumb-ass hooker ain’t nuttin but a dyke.”  Rap has a notorious history with misogyny, and that was on full display in Straight Outta Compton.  Women are reduced to nothing but objects to be used and then discarded.  The crucial detail left out of the story, however, is producer Dr. Dre’s assault of journalist Dee Barnes.  The film’s portrayal of women is accurate, but to leave out Dre’s history of abuse left her “like many of the women that knew and worked with N.W.A.: a casualty of [the film’s] revisionist history.”  The brilliance of the film comes from its moments of authenticity, and F. Gary Gray decided to tarnish his movie by treating an important case of violence against women like a footnote.

You can make five different N.W.A movies.  We made the one we wanted to make.

–F. Gary Gray

Furthermore, Dr. Dre should not have been allowed to executively produce the movie along with Ice Cube.  That is gross conflict of interest.  I highly encourage everyone to read Dee Barnes’ personal essay on this issue here.

Despite the glaring omissions, I paid to go see this movie because it was made by Black people for a Black audience and was not stereotypically offensive.  In Hollywood, the number of movies with the majority of the cast people of color is horrifically and inexcusably low.  So low in fact, that when a Black biopic largely set in Los Angeles is released, the police beef up security at the theaters.  This precise kind of ingrained, institutional racism is what makes Straight Outta Compton so relevant and so powerfully good.  To this day the police are intimidated by mainstream art made by and for audiences of color, which is so rare that it’s treated like a terrorist plot.  In 2015, the LAPD have shot 25 people and killed 13, but there have been no acts of gun violence by Black theater audience members in Los Angeles in the same year.  So as N.W.A. would say, fuck the police and go see the year’s best movie.


I’ve thought a lot about that day in woodworking in the recent weeks.  My pretentious response to a boy etching in an acronym for a empowering rap group name was an ignorant one.  The real reason he got in trouble was because the white teacher’s socially and racially motived power dynamic was in jeopardy.  In an inherently racist system the Black boy was not allowed to express his interests in art that upset the status quo.  He was also afraid of something that exposed his privilege and of music that did not represent himself.  Straight Outta Compton is a magnificent portrayal of a crucial chapter in American musical history that is sure to make people uncomfortable. As a result it is poignant and provocative and invites engaging in debates about several important issues relevant to life in the United States.

4.5/5

3EB’s Dopamine: Good Thing Those Other Two Eyes are Still Working

Third Eye Blind never released an amazing album.  They had four (Dopamine makes it five) good LP’s with at most two thirds of the songs being better than average.  And let us be real here, some of those songs are storied heroes, but some of them are complete crap as well.  Take their best selling release for example.  Their self-titled debut has three indisputable classics: “Jumper,” “How’s It Going To Be,” and “Semi-Charmed Life.”  On the flip side, it is a record that contains “Thanks a Lot,” “Burning Man,” and “Good For You.”  These three may as well be a huge spike strip tearing the tires off an American-built juggernaut which would otherwise be speeding towards Mount Olympus for 90’s album deification.

Dopamine keeps that streak alive and well, and it unfortunately–even after all these years–only manages to prove that Third Eye Blind (3EB) will always be a famous 90’s band known almost solely for their singles and not a coherent album.  This obviously is not a damning statement.  Their fifth studio album–the band’s first in six years–has some quintessential 3EB songs that are worth holding on to.

Despite all the talk about 3EB capitalizing on millennial 90’s nostalgia, Dopamine’s keepers are not just predators of sentimental value.  That would be a fair point had this record been complete trash.  It is a bummer that the album begins with “Everything is Easy,” a song that definitely feels like 3EB is playing villainous puppet master with millennial heartstrings.  It sounds like the band, but does not feel like the band.  “IT’S A TRAP!” Admiral Ackbar screams.  It very well may be, but whatever, loyal fans will ride out the storm regardless.  Good thing those other two eyes are still work.  What the band did right in their heyday isn’t easy to duplicate, but they manage to recycle it, often to powerful effect.

Track number two is a beautiful example, and after the opening song feels simultaneously like a sigh of relief and a punch to the stomach.  “Shipboard Cook” reminds everyone that 3EB lyrics are bittersweet diamonds in the rough: they don’t seem like much when you first hear them, but they come back around and you realize how poetic they are.  But only after they’ve ripped your heart out.  At no time does this hold more true than during “Blade.”  For those who remember “God of Wine,” or “Slow Motion,” “Blade” is their equal in calamitous and passionate imagery.  A bold statement, but the lyrics speak for themselves.

Stephan Jenkins, the main singer/songwriting member of 3EB, is a brilliant poet who can provoke intense thoughts with violent, devastating lyrics.  It’s always difficult for a band to remain relevant over the span of decades, but those who do almost always have a genius songwriter who first and foremost uses the power of lyrics to propel the music forward.  Alas, 3EB has never been flawless, Jenkins least of all.  He is constantly dogged by lawsuits from former band members who accuse him of being a greedy egotist.

Perhaps the staggering weight of dealing with all ten former band members, including those he fired from the band, finally caught up with Jenkins.  On the penultimate song, “Exiles,” he writes, “Are we breaking up the band? / The naturals of dark arts / I think we like the feeling of falling apart.”  Unsurprisingly, it ends up being a half-assed apology, if it can even be called that.  He later sings, “Well I remember everything I said / And I don’t take it back / In the silence of this breakup all my cracks are exposed / And then the night goes black on black.”

At the end of the day, Jenkins is still the same person he always has been for 3EB’s 22 year lifespan.  He is a bipolar songwriter who even in his flashes of brilliance held on stubbornly to his flaws.  This album is purportedly the band’s last, so after this wave of nostalgia disappears and 3EB ends its current overpriced tour, they are done.  Too bad Jenkins decided to keep some songs off this album.  For those die-hards who remember the long-lost “Persephone” and “Second Born” and had hoped they would be on this album, we’ll just have to come to terms with the fact that 3EB never reached their full potential.  There are a couple amazing songs on Dopamine, but that third eye will always be blind, for better and for worse.

Settler: Sometimes Life Sucks, But What Are You Going To Do About It?

I recently dropped my dad off in DC for one of the many professional sojourns for his job.  As I was sitting in traffic and wondering whether or not I would be late to work, I realized that people who had to make the commute twice a day must hate their lives.  I was intensely exhausted and miserable from just making the drive for the sixth time in a week, I could not imagine doing it ten times Monday through Friday.  As soon as I dropped him off, I changed the music from Sufjan Stevens to Vattnet Viskar’s new album, Settler.  The rolling drums, heavy metal guitar riffs, and guttural vocals were much better suited to my mood.

When I read up on the album I discovered that Vattnet Viskar (originally from New Hampshire) recorded it in Champaign, Illinois.  This made me happy for two reasons.  First, one of my best friends lives there and last September I visited him and we had a spectacular time eating, drinking, hanging out, and going to the Pygmalion music festival.  It will forever be a wonderfully fond memory.  Secondly, Champaign is exactly where my dad is right now, since I dropped him off on his trip to visit a school in the city and hence the Sufjan Stevens.

Discovering that piece of information made me smile and laugh to myself.  In the middle of that intense feeling of frustrated anger and sadness, life gave me a happy coincidence.  I don’t really think that it was an accident.  Especially given the recent African Methodist Episcopalian Church massacre, Settler could not have come at a better time.

Released digitally this past Tuesday, June 16th, Vattnet Viskar’s metal celebration is hardly the first piece of music to put forth the philosophy that in the face of violent death and human rights atrocities one should embrace life’s beauty.  Flying Lotus’ brilliant concept album You’re Dead! was among the first of this current generation’s efforts to musically describe that dogma, and it was never more gorgeously brought to life than in his “Never Catch Me” music video.  Most recently, Kendrick Lamar’s last two LP’s have sought to explain to the world what it’s like to be Black and in America.  In both cases (especially To Pimp a Butterfly) he has immaculately shown that not only is there a plethora of unspeakable violence but also a rich and powerful cultural experience and history.

I am not suggesting that this album speaks to the Black experience, I am merely drawing comparison between their themes.  In the perpetual struggle between light and dark, Settler adds its powerfully post-metal voice to the fray and it is not at all lost among the mountains.  These songs perfectly depict life’s awesome cruelty and beauty.

Take “Colony,” for example.  I goddamn cannot stand ants.  I live in an old, porous brick house in which millions of ants swarm from the depths of the floors and the cracks in the walls to descend vengefully on the donut I placed on the counter one single minute ago or the cat food that Eva Luna had the decency to knock out of her bowl.  They are everywhere, and  their relentlessness is infuriating.  For Vattnet Viskar’s cofounder and guitarist Chris Alfieri, however, ants are fascinating bugs that have communication networks more complex than Google algorithms.  How beautiful is that?  Painfully so when I think that those ants were just trying to survive before I subjected them to writhing pain with cleaner and wiped them down the drain.

Vattnet-Viskar

And just like that, we inevitably arrive at the album’s most enduring point: that life is unfairly cruel and all we can do is celebrate it when we can.  Just like the ants at the mercy of my hand, our lives can end in a flash.  Do your best to live it to the fullest, as embodied in the immensely conflicting album cover.  In 1985, New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe was selected by NASA from a pool of over 11,000 applicants to give lessons in space.  For her training she was subjected to the “vomit-comet,” in which she had to experience weightlessness in a zero-gravity environment.  Instead of being tentative and anxious, McAuliffe’s infectious enthusiasm won out and she joyfully floated around, basking in the glow of feeling alive.  She died less than four months later when the Space Shuttle Challenger fell apart 73 seconds after launch.

christa-mcauliffe

In Colour: Perfectly Walking the Trapeze Between Subtle Beauty and Infectious Dance

Club music should not be in your face all the time.   As I age, I am realizing how much the rave and EDM scene is targeted at the roaring youth, tripping and rolling into mad light shows and highlighter paint mobs.  I like raves as much as the next bro, but in order to truly appreciate dance music one must understand that dubstep is as much the product of Donna Summer as Taylor Swift is the product of Arlo Guthrie.  All music draws from tradition and history in some way, and The xx band member Jamie XX is set out to prove just that in his debut solo release, In Colour.

If you have been craving a sound and have not been able to find it since Daft Punk’s magnum opus Random Access Memories, look no further than In Colour.  As far as paying homage to the origins of modern dance music goes, Europeans just get it.  Yes, French house music is heavily influenced by Chicago’s dance movement, but many argue that the principle pioneer of American disco and dance is the famous Italian musician, Giorgio Moroder.  Of this I agree, but regardless of what nationality you are loyal to, music is a universal language, something that affects everyone equally.

Which is one of the album’s bright focal points.  Jamie XX’s British roots are the highlight, but two of the songs are dedicated to the Caribbean and its flourishing aura of positivity.  “I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times” features Jamaican artist Popcaan and “Obvs” showcases the power of steel drums, which is a Trinidad & Tobago instrument.  Jamie XX does not suffer from regional nearsightedness.

Comfort zones are still hard to escape, however, and there are two songs that feature The xx singer Romy.  That’s not to say that it was a disappointment to hear her on this album, but the other songs prove how much potential Jamie XX has as a solo artist.  “Loud Places” ends with Romy singing the lyrics “you’re in ecstasy without me / When you come down / I won’t be around,” and is a letdown given the album’s overall theme of triumph.  It would have better suited the cohesiveness of the release if it did not feel obligated to include an excuse why The xx might break up after In Colour is released to critical acclaim.

Ultimately that is the album’s only weak point, and it is not a damning one.  To blame someone for cautionary change would be a contradictory exercise and would rob Jamie XX of his humanity.  In Colour is an appropriate debut, one that does not take too much risk but packs enough in to declare an ambitious future.  A future that hopefully pushes dance music towards more advanced fare, one with piano arpeggios and beats established without the use of bass.  Opener “Gosh” is the perfect example of this because it is infectious, has an immaculate trajectory, and has the magical gift to initiate body movement–all without the overuse of bass.

It is impossible to decide whether to blast that on full volume or to listen to it with eyes closed at a moderate volume.   That exact beauteous balance on the trapeze high wire of dance music is not something easily achieved, and all 43 minutes of In Colour manages to instill that enlightened sense of a calm adrenaline rush.

Multifaceted acknowledgement of musical and cultural origins is one of the reasons why genres are able to sustain similarities while simultaneously achieving a state of fluid progressiveness.  This is not dance music moving backwards, but rather its ascent towards greater heights.  Jamie XX subtly yet exultantly proves that clubbing should gravitate towards finesse and move away from the abrasive migraine-inducing thumping that has become the norm.

The Not at All Definitive Top 50 Songs of the Decade So Far

I won’t waste your time introducing this list.  Except for some disclaimers.  So I guess I will waste a little of your time.  I honestly believe that no list of this magnitude is complete without covering all the bases.  It would be be dishonest and pretentious to completely disregard country or “stoner music” simply because, so I tried my best to make this list as diverse as possible while simultaneously retaining 50 of my favorite songs of the decade.  I also am 100 percent serious when I tell people I listen to everything.  Will I gravitate towards certain styles and artists?  Of course.  But from Ke$ha to the London Symphony Orchestra, from Skrillex to Shadia Mansour, all the music I was exposed to was taken into consideration.


50 

Main Attrakionz “Perfect Skies”

In the film Zombieland, the main character Columbus adds the rule “enjoy the little things” to his list of survival guidelines.  Not only does this help him relieve stress in a post-apocalyptic world, but it also keeps him appreciative of living life.  “Perfect Skies” begins with the line “I just want to kick my feet up / stack some cheese and light my weed up with my niggas.”  While some people might view marijuana and money as sinful “little things” to enjoy, putting your legs up and reclining in a comfy chair in the company of friends is definitely universal.  Squadda B and Mondre Man–the duo that make up Main Attrakionz–work really hard and will continue to strive towards a higher goal by doing something that they love.  And on the way there, they’ll enjoy the little things:

“My heart’ll feel lucky, still striving with a blessing

But I’ll always want more, so I’ll never meet perfection

Collected all my colors, the canvas is white

Rep that shit in here, a Perfect Sky”


49 

Bombadil “A Question”

This technically isn’t a meet cute since it appears the two people involved know each other, but I challenge you to find a declaration of attraction in song form that is both more adorable and amusing than “A Question.”  Spoiler alert: you will not.


Super Bass (Official Single Cover)

48

Nicki Minaj “Super Bass”

Nicki Minaj’s claim to fame was to occupy a space that badly needs filling.  Other then Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing),” and Missy Elliot’s “Work It,” Nicki Minaj is the only female rapper to reach Billboard’s podium.  That said, Nicki Minaj is not afraid to flaunt the Pop Diva within her, and “Super Bass” is the perfect blend of both genres.


black sheep clash

47

Metric “Black Sheep”

Sometime during the first of a dozen viewings of the film Scott Pilgrim Vs The World I had one obsessive recurring thought: “They’ve hyped up this mysterious band that is fronted by our protagonist’s ex girlfriend SO MUCH that the song they play better not be a let down.”  When the time finally came to hear it, I was not disappointed.  Actress Brie Larson brings Metric’s song to life so well that it ends up fitting the plot and scene flawlessly.  “Now that the truth is just a rule that you can bend / You crack the whip, shape shift and trick the past again,” are two lines that hold true to every you-said-this-at-one-point relationship spat and are so relevant to the film’s central themes that it’s hard not to place this song above the other two movie songs on this list.


46

Danish String Quartet Sønderho Bridal Trilogy, Pt. II

Normally these guys play Beethoven, but when they decided to play some traditional music from the place they call home, their true beauty was brought to light.


Scary_monsters_and_nice_sprites

45

Skrillex “Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites”

In a Pitchfork interview Skrillex explained that DJ’ing was the least egotistical thing to do because when done right and to perfection you played what the audience wanted to hear.  He’s not choosing what to play, the crowd is.  It was this sort of attitude I tried my best to emulate when I worked Fourth Meal at Oberlin.  In the student manager position I could DJ and play music while people ate their food and socialized.  There is no better feeling in the world than when you string together a bunch of songs that ease the pressure of school and make people laugh and dance.  So when Sonny Moore’s project Skrillex took off, he didn’t feel too comfortable.  Dubstep has become such a phenomenon that artists like Taylor Swift have incorporated it into their songs.  Hits like “I Knew You Were Trouble” would not exist without “Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites.”  To this day Sonny Moore does not feel entirely at home being the center of the EDM landscape, but he takes comfort in knowing that he brings his fans joy.

I remember seeing the full Daft Punk pyramid show in 2007. I went alone, drove up in my Honda Fit, bought a ticket off a scalper for $150, got on the floor, and had the best time of my life. I didn’t have a drink, no drugs. But I was high out of my mind. It changed my life. This is gonna sound really lame, but try to take it the right way: There have been a couple times where I’ve been so proud of what I’ve done live, like I feel like I’ve given someone the same kind of feeling I got at that Daft Punk show. And that feels so good.


44

Sufjan Stevens “Christmas Unicorn”

I’m just going to say it: this is the greatest non-classic Christmas song ever.  Sufjan Stevens sings about his complicated relationship with the holiday with such wit and gusto that not one second of this twelve minute exploration of bastardized tradition overstays its welcome.  It’s weird, because I just had a conversation about Valentines Day and St. Patrick’s Day and how they have been used to promote binge drinking and jewelry.  There’s something that can’t really be put into words, some sort of inkling or urge to experience holidays even when we are guilty or complicit in anxiously promoting grotesque consumerism.  Sufjan attempts to answer the question in one of the essays that accompany his Christmas set of EP’s:

In spite of my best judgment, in spite of public opinion, in spite of common decency, in spite of seasonal affective disorder, mental disease and Christmas fatigue, I’ve continued the musical tradition (ever onward forever amen), in pursuing all the inexplicable songs of the holidays, season after season (without rhyme or reason), relentlessly humming, strumming, finger-picking, ivory-tickling, finger-licking, soul-searching, fact-finding, corporate ladder-climbing, magic hatter rabbit hiding, rapping, slapping, super-sizing, miming, grinding, flexing, perplexing, plucking and strumming all the celestial strings of merriment with utmost Napoleonic fever. This tradition will not die.

What is it about Christmas music that continues to agitate my aging heartstrings? Is it the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen? Or the boundless Potential Energy inherent in this bastard holiday so fitfully exploited, subverted, confounded, expounded, adopted and adapted with no regard for decency. Christ­mas is what you make of it, and its songs reflect mystery and magic as expertly as they clatter and clang with the most audacious and rambunctious intonations of irrever­ence. And all its silly-putty, slippery-slope, slap-dash menagerie of subject matter (be it Baby Jesus or Babes in Toyland) readily yields itself to the impudent whims of its contemporary benefactors, myself included.


43

The Range “Jamie”

When I was in Champaign, Illinois for the Pygmalion Festival last year, I recognized James Hinton sipping on a beer across the street.  I was eating dinner with my friend and we were all relaxing before the exciting night of music began.  I nervously went over to tell him how much I loved his music.  He was flattered and taken off guard, but it was awesome because we ended up talking about gang violence in Chicago and about a few specific songs.

I wouldn’t say that he was upset, but he was a little unsettled by the fact that I recognized him.  His project The Range isn’t at all enormous, and I left his company thinking about the rap sample in this song.  “The more people surround me the more lonely I feel,” the rapper laments.  One of the biggest challenges for artists is dealing with that potential fame.  Some friends turn to enemies and they become surrounded by a lot of superficial people who fluff and bluff to grab a piece of stardom.  Because the pool of candidates grows, however, the opportunity to develop deep and lasting friendships increases.  That’s why halfway through “Jamie” the key changes and we hear some optimistic notes of piano rise to the surface.  The transformation is powerful, the kind that sticks with you long after listening.


42

Eric Church “Springsteen”

Eric Church sings the name Springsteen almost as an afterthought at the end of the chorus, but to see it that way would be a grave mistake.  By uttering the name of The Boss, Church purposely triggers all associations with his music, and as a result makes us think of any memories and moments we have that involve “Born in the USA” and “I’m on Fire.”  The music we listen to shape and mold our experiences and in turn our character and persona.  Eric Church realizes this, and even though it’s a little bit of a cop-out to provoke our feelings about another musicians rather than his own, it is still genuine and from the heart.   We associate the music we listen to with memories, and whether you hate this genre of music or not, you can appreciate the sentiment that comes packaged with this song about nostalgic auditory triggers.


41

Soulja Boy & Ester Dean “Grammy”

DeAndre “Soulja Boy Tell’Em” Way is one of those people of whom I am always thinking, “wow, we’re the same age.”  At 24, Soulja Boy is somehow old enough to have lived an entire career arc.  He made millions on the songs he recorded in his room and practically personifies that cursed “live fast die young” internet celebrity status which he still stubbornly struggles to regain.  “I deserve a Grammy” is not a statement of arrogance but rather the defeated plea of someone who painfully acknowledges his wealth and best music is behind him.  I can’t help but think to myself how many countless others were robbed of rightful accolades based on race and class.


Concerning Viet Cong and the Politicization of Band Names

The cancellation of Viet Cong’s show at my alma mater Oberlin College is now receiving national attention.  They were scheduled to perform at the ‘Sco (which is the small club located within the Student Union) on March 14, but the promoter, Ivan Krasnov, cancelled it after receiving backlash over the offensive band name.

In the past I have argued that band/musical project names should hold nothing back from the artist’s work.  Specifically I have fought for people not to blindly hate Tom Krell’s band because of the silly name How to Dress Well.  In making that point in my top 10 albums of 2014 post my girlfriend and occasionally brutally honest editor (I am immensely grateful for this) told me that band names are important and that one should judge music based on its titles and artists to a certain degree.  She told me that it was especially important for Tom Krell, an independent artist who’s band name plays an enormous part in its image and promotion.  I grudgingly concede, especially after I asked a good friend the other day if he would listen to a band with the name How to Dress Well and his response was to laugh and say hell no.

While How to Dress Well may be a somewhat absurd name that decreases Tom Krell’s pool of potential new fans, the negative effect is nothing compared to Viet Cong.  If you chalk it up as “just a band name,” you discredit those who were or had family veterans tortured for years in prison camps.  No, discredit is not strong enough a word to describe the impact this name has on those directly affected by the Vietnam War.

In an interview, front man Matt Flegel laughs the controversy off.  Not only is he aware of the problematic connotations, but he dismisses a letter directly from someone who had family that were tortured.  It is repulsive to see his reaction, and based on the half-assed apology that he released today, he’s keeping the name.

Our band, Viet Cong, has existed for a little over three years now. When we named ourselves, we were naive about the history of a war in a country we knew very little about. We now better understand the weight behind the words Viet Cong. While we don’t take any concerns about the name lightly, we feel it is important to let you know that we never meant to trivialize the atrocities or violence that occurred on both sides of the Vietnam War. We never intended for our name to be provocative or hurtful.
We truly appreciate the seriousness of the feedback we’ve received, and we will continue to be open to listening to issues and concerns from all perspectives.
With love from the band Viet Cong.

There are several problems with this “apology.”  They acknowledge the band name is problematic and that they are in the wrong for choosing it.  They claim to “better understand” the appropriation they are benefiting from and “truly appreciate the seriousness of the feedback,” and yet have made no efforts to change their name.  They do not care, and to prove it, they end the damn thing with the damn name.

For those who believe that censoring artists for politically charged names is ridiculous should at the very least recognize that there will always be social backlash.  This band, bathing in its power and privilege, doesn’t want to aid a marginalized community and are actively promoting the racist notion that their feelings are invalid.  If you don’t see it that way, then consider starting a band called the Auschwitz (insert word here) and see how that goes.

So yeah, Oberlin added to its progressive reputation and cancelled Viet Cong’s show.  To his credit, promoter Ivan Krasnov made the tough decision to abort the event after he made the effort to bring them to perform.  In his issued apology, Krasnov explains the motives behind the decision and gives some really good points.  The one that I appreciated the most from a history major perspective was the citation of Oberlin’s commencement cap and gown tradition.  In the summer of 1970, Oberlin seniors refused to wear the cap and gown to their commencement ceremony and used the refund money to give to Vietnam War protest efforts or local community projects.  To this day, graduating Obies wear whatever they want.