Portastatic – “I Wanna Know Girls”

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Album: Bright Ideas

Released: 2005

Label: Merge

Mac McCaughan is the singer/guitarist/leader of Superchunk and several other side-projects, including Portastatic. The band’s 5th album, 2005’s Bright Ideas, was released on McCaughan’s own Merge label and it’s the only Portastatic album that I’m familiar with, but once you’ve heard one McCaughan song you’ve heard them all. This is not a complaint – there’s something honorable about being so consistent in rock music, especially when you’ve been playing music for over 20 years across several bands. Few songwriters can use a guitar to come up with great riffs and melodies album after album across decades. Many of his songs sound the same, but they’re all pretty good to really great.

“I Wanna Know Girls” might be McCaughan’s best song, with Portastatic or any of his other bands, including Superchunk.

Because this is a McCaughan song, you can already guess at its sound – driving melodic guitars, not too distorted but plenty loud, his signature slacker everyman voice, the never flashy push of the drums and bass, etc. This is a no-fuss rock song if there ever was one. However, what makes this song so special is that it’s such an affectionate and positive love song, which is something I don’t hear much in rock music. It’s McCaughan celebrating women and trying to find the right one (“I wanna know girls, but only love one”). There’s no sense of anger or isolation towards love – it’s just a positive jam looking on the bright side of life.

Why is it so rare to find good songs that don’t channel anger in relation to love? Most of my favorite songs are about heartbreak and isolation, and any song I think is “positive” isn’t usually considered “good”. Jimmy Eats World and Nada Surf are two exceptions that come to mind, but other than that I keep these rare positive jams whenever I find them.

That’s the next revival I want – Superchunk-Positive-Vibes-Core. Make it happen Brooklyn.

The rest of Bright Ideas is just as pleasant as this song, and, if you don’t think too hard, it sounds just like late-career Superchunk.

Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber

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GENTLE LOVE – “Singing Emotions”

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Album: Prescription for Sleep: Game Music Lullabies

Release: 2014

Label: Scarlet Moon Records

When I moved to New York this summer I already had a few songs picked out for my days and nights living in the city. I actually had a full playlist ready to go. These were overly romantic songs which, in my head, would be the songs that I would listen to while walking through the streets of Manhattan or sitting by a window and quietly observing the tall buildings and fancy New Yorkers surrounding me. Norah Jones, Belle & Sebastian, Simon & Garfunkel, early Bob Dylan, Velvet Underground, and more. If this sounds like Kid Moves From The Midwest To New York City And Golly Look At All The Bright Lights, then you’re right.

However, I just heard a song that trumps any Norah Jones or Belle & Sebastian – and it’s a song from the video game Chrono Cross! It’s actually a jazzy-reinterpretation of one of game’s songs, “Singing Emotions”, but I wouldn’t think twice if it was in a Woody Allen movie. Since Woody Allen movies are the reason why many people move from the midwest to New York, this song fits right in.

The song was originally composed by Yasunori Mitsuda for the 1999 Playstation game, yet in the hands of GENTLE LOVE (AYAKI on piano, Norihiko Hibino on saxophone, and Naoko Sato on percussion) this song could now replace Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” in the opening credits of Manhattan.

The rest of this album is also worth checking out – Prescription for Sleep includes jazz reinterpretations of songs from classic video games such as Super Mario 64, multiple Final Fantasy and Elder Scrolls games, Donkey Kong Country, and many more. This year another album in the series came out and it includes more video game music as cool jazz. Check it out and enjoy.

Listen to the original version below:

Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber

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Broadcast – ‘The Noise Made By People’

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Release: 2000

Label: Warp Records (UK) / Tommy Boy Records (US)

I hear Deerhoof. I hear every UK 60s throwback band trying to make it in the United States. I hear Yo La Tengo. I hear Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner. I hear a hip French band soundtracking a new noir film about an abduction and/or damsel in distress. I hear “indie”, back when “indie” actually meant something. I hear Kid A a few months before Kid A was released. I hear an alternative future in which we all became cyborgs and this is what we’re all listening to on the jukebox.

Broadcast, from Birmingham, England, had been around since 1995, but The Noise Made By People, their official debut, was released in 2000. They were signed to Warp, yet they were the least electronic act on the label. This was pop music envisioned for the future, which in 2000 sounded like Aphex Twin taking over the Beatles or the Replacements in terms of influence.

Lead singer Trish Keenan sounds detached and cold, like a futuristic Nico who sounds too cool to sing simple pop songs, yet the two highlights, “Come On Let’s Go” and “Echo’s Answer” keeps Keenan at her most open and potentially vulnerable. Sometimes she even sounds like a robot (“You Can Fall”), but mostly Keenan sounds like someone who has time-traveled from the future and and is unimpressed with our primitive songwriting. If she’s a robot, then it must be irony that this album is called The Noise Made By People.

15 years later and this album hasn’t lost any of its cool. Maybe this will be the soundtrack of the future?

“Come On Let’s Go”

“Echo’s Answer”

Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber

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Musicians And Their Favorite Books: Izzy True – “The Spring Tune” by Tove Jansson

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(Photo: Isabel Reidy)

Welcome to ‘Musicians And Their Favorite Books’. Once a month, a musician writes about one of their favorite books and how it influences their work.

Izzy True is a musician and cartoonist living in Trumansburg, NY. She plays music about her comics with her brother Silas Reidy and her friends Angela DeVivo and Jon Samuels. Izzy True’s debut release Troll EP is out now on Don Giovanni Records.

The following piece is in Izzy’s own words:

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“The Spring Tune” – Tove Jansson

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a song last. Typically I listen to music in the same sweaty, desperate way I do pretty much everything else. I love songs briefly and intensely – something about it will catch me and I’ll have to listen to it over and over and over until the fever breaks and I’m done with it. I listened to Steely Dan’s “Peg” about 300 times over the course of a single week this Summer (my brother, who was stuck in a car with me at the time, was not stoked about this.)

Then there are those other songs, the ones that I will probably listen to my whole life. These songs don’t get hollow and stale with repetition, but instead reveal more of themselves each time I hear them. It’s a tricky business trying to nail down exactly what qualities makes a song stick in that way.

Moomin Characters(tm)

(Photo: Moomin Characters)

Whenever I try to put my finger on it “The Spring Tune”, a short story from Tove Jansson’s Tales From Moominvalley, invariably comes to mind. It’s about a wandering musician named Snufkin and the night his song writing is interrupted by a lonesome, pathetic Creep. In addition to containing the single best description of what it’s like to write a song I’ve ever read, “The Spring Tune” has a beautiful passage about the song that Snufkin was working on:

“‘It’s the right evening for a tune.’ Snufkin thought. A new tune, one part expectation, two parts spring sadness, and for the rest just the great delight of walking alone and liking it.”

I think that’s what makes a song last, more or less. A little bit of that soft, underlying melancholy that you can never quite shake, a nod to loneliness, and a joke about the whole thing. Because, ya know, who are you, anyway, and who really cares? Sometimes you need big, wild songs for big, wild feelings, but I think the songs about the quiet pauses in between those feelings have the most longevity for me.

Cameron Pollack

(Photo: Cameron Pollack)

I grew up reading Moomintroll. For anyone unfamiliar, they are Finnish children’s books about a family of weird creatures who live by the sea. The stories are wHiMsY rIcH and funny, but also deeply sad. All of the characters seem to be a bit lonely in one way or another, and their adventures take place as much in the strange world they inhabit as they do in their sort of sad experiences of each other.

I’ve reread them a few times now that I’m older and am always shocked at their depth. I wonder how much of that stuff I was able to pick up on as a kid, I can’t really remember much more than the fact that I loved the books. However much of it I grasped back then, Moomintroll had a lasting effect on me.

These days when I write a song or make a comic, I’m always hoping to catch that ~Moominvalley vibe~… that Jonathan Richman “Summer Feeling”.

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You can find Izzy True via:

Don Giovanni

Facebook

Twitter

Instagram

Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber

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My Favorite Books (For Your Consideration)

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Here are some of my favorite books that I’ve read over the years and would recommend to all you nice people. Listed alphabetically by author.

As I read more books I’ll update the list here.

Douglas Adams – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

This might be the greatest book ever written. It’s easy to read, funny as hell, and full of insight and, more importantly, hope. Don’t panic.

Syd Field – Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting

This is a good introduction to screenwriting, but for non-movie people this is also a great resource for understanding story structure and writing clearly.

James Joyce – Ulysses

The most pretentious book that’s actually worth reading. Here’s another reason why you should read it.

Stephen King – On Writing

Possibly the best book on how to write well, if not the most accessible. You don’t have to be a King fan to enjoy good advice. Also check out Elements of Style and Several Short Sentences About Writing.

Austin Kleon – Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

A self-described manifesto for creativity in the digital age. It’s so easy to read, you can show this to your parents and they’ll want to start writing a novel. Also check out Show Your Work.

Leil Lowndes – How To Talk To Anyone

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People for the 21st century.

Henry Miller – Tropic of Cancer

It’s not for everyone, but this is the book that inspired me to become a writer. There would be no Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, or Beat movement without this book.

Ramit Sethi – I Will Teach You To Be Rich

This isn’t the only personal finance book that you should read, but it’s a great introduction for anyone who isn’t sure where to start learning about managing their own money, investing, or saving for retirement (which you should start doing right now).

Any Shakespeare

The Reduced Shakespeare Company is a good place to start.

Patti Smith – Just Kids

Read this before you jump on that train to New York City to pursuit your dreams, because once upon a time she was just like you.

John Steinbeck – East of Eden

Forget Grapes of Wrath, this is his best book.

Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

Because what else is there?

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five

This is the classic novel from my favorite writer. My personal favorite Vonnegut is God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, but this is where you should start. So it goes.

Andy Warhol – The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)

Part autobiography, part meditation on the pop culture that he helped popularized, Warhol is as ironic and detached as you’d expect in this 1975 book. However, what makes this book worth reading is that he’s surprisingly open about his hopes and fears and what role he believes art plays in life (hint: art is useless).

Malcolm X – The Autobiography of Malcolm X

A powerful and often painful look at race in America. This is Malcolm’s life, but Alex Haley’s brilliant ghostwriting elevates his story to required reading.

The Dhammapada, The Bhagavad Gita, The Quran, The Bible, and other religious text

Whether you believe it or not, it’s important to understand what each religion stands for, and you might actually learn a thing or two.

The Communist Manifesto, The Wealth Of Nations, and other political & economic text

Same as the religious texts. Become an informed citizen. Read as much as you can.

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Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber

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Sounds Like: 80’s Bob Dylan

Folk legend Bob Dylan, is shown in London to help publicize the American-financed film "Hearts of Fire", Aug. 17, 1986 in which he will star as a retired rock star, which begins six weeks of filming later this month. Dylan, 45, protest songwriter/singer of the sixties, is doing film after an acting break of 12 years and is to write four songs for it. (AP Photo/Press Association)
(AP Photo/Press Association)

Welcome to the first installment of the ‘Sounds Like’ series, in which I travel back to a particular era or genre that is often neglected or misunderstood and try to make sense of it.

Saved (1980)

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Dylan ended the 70’s with a prayer to Jesus and a big Fuck You to his fans who stuck around after Street Legal hoping for another Blood On The Tracks. Instead they got Slow Train Coming, a good album everyone hated because the prophet who once mocked all the men With God On Their Side now had God on his side. But hey, this is Bob Dylan. He’s just going through another phase and he’ll be back to his good old self and the 80’s are gonna be groovy man.

No man, not groovy.

Saved was Dylan’s second religious album in a row and his first for the new decade.

“Two religious Bob Dylan albums in a row? Nice knowing ya Bob.” – said every disgruntled person ever.

But here’s the thing – the album’s biggest sin is that the music is actually pretty good. Nothing particularly stands out, but taken as a whole this album manages to make sense as one entire unit instead of all of Dylan’s albums in the 70’s not named Blood On The Tracks (Yes, this means I don’t like Desire, but that’s for another day). It won’t rock your soul or get in you more in touch with Jesus, but you can do worse than spend 43 minutes of your time here.


 

Shot of Love (1981)

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The third and last of the Christian trilogy, but at the time no one knew this would just be a trilogy. Maybe Dylan didn’t even know this would be his last Christian album. Or maybe he did. Either way it’s the same case here as it was with Saved; it’s pretty good music bogged down by an off-putting message. The music is less gospel and more rock & roll, but Jesus is still alright in these songs. However, unlike Saved, there is one standout song: “Every Grain of Sand.”


 

Infidels (1983)

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“No more songs about Jesus? The first song sounds like Jimmy Buffett? Mark Knopfler produced it? Hallelujah!” – said every disgruntled person ever.


 

Empire Burlesque (1985)

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Confession: I’ve never been able to sit through all of Empire Burlesque. It’s that bad.

Ok it’s not that bad. It’s just the most 80’s album you could possibly make. Which is pretty bad.

Is there any sort of redemption for this album? Yes, it’s called “Dark Eyes,” my favorite 80’s Dylan song. This could have been on Freewheelin’ all those years ago, and his voice and acoustic guitar has never sounded better.


 

Knocked Out Loaded (1986)

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Right when this album was released it earned the high distinction of being the most universally hated Bob Dylan album ever released. Every single critic except Robert Christgau hated it. And almost 30 years later not much has changed. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing really offensive or funny about how bad this music is. When Dylan was bad before, the music was intentionally bad or the music was so brilliant that it required decades of listening to be understood (Self-Portrait). Album cover aside, this album doesn’t seem like it’s trying to make any statement or to piss anyone off. It’s just boring.

But hey, “Brownsville Girl” ain’t so bad right?


 

Down in the Groove (1988)

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“Wait, this album also sucks? And Mark Knopfler produced this shit too? Gah, just give me ‘Silvio’ and leave me alone.” – said every disgruntled person ever.


 

Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988)

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In which Dylan teamed up with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne to record an album scientifically engineered for the sole purpose of selling a million records to fund everyone’s solo albums.


 

Dylan & The Dead (1989)

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Bob Dylan playing a show with the Grateful Dead might have sounded cool in 1966, but in 1989 it sounded like the cash-grab it was meant to be. Not terrible, but not essential.


 

Oh Mercy (1989)

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It was clear by the end of the 80’s that Dylan had created a habit of ending each decade with a huge curveball for his fans and critics. In 1969 he had become a country singer. In 1979 he was a born-again Christian. In 1989 he made a U2 record. Of course by U2 I mean Daniel Lanois, the mastermind who produced most of U2’s albums and Oh Mercy, the last 80’s Dylan album and by far the best one.

If you’re wondering what a U2-produced Bob Dylan album sounds like, it sounds nothing like U2. The music is dark in a literal sense; this is music you listen to alone at night in the back of a bar or outside under the stars, wishfully thinking and feeling both happy and sad about life and love. Dylan has made better music, but few albums sound anything like Oh Mercy.

Note: this album sounds much better after reading Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One and watching High Fidelity.

 

Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber

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You Can’t Listen To Hardcore Punk Rock. You Have To Watch Hardcore Punk Rock.

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You can’t listen to hardcore punk rock. Ok you can, but you’d be missing out. You need to watch hardcore punk, in the flesh, in a poorly lit LA club and be right in the middle of the sweaty mosh pit close enough to spit on the lead singer and for him or her to spit right back. You need Keith Morris to scream “I Just Want Some Skank” in one ear and Greg Hetson’s screaming electric guitar in the other and you need to pogo dance like there’s no tomorrow. It needs to be the 80s and you need to be pissed off. Reagan, your parents, new wave, they all suck. This is the only thing that’s happening, man.

But it’s not the 80s anymore, so you’re shit out of luck.

However, all is not lost: Penelope Spheeris directed a trilogy of films capturing the changing LA music scene throughout the 80s and 90s, just for you.

The first film is called “The Decline Of Western Civilization” (1981) and it covers the LA hardcore punk rock scene in 1979-80. The second film is “The Decline Of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years” (1988) and it covers LA hair metal and includes one of the most cringeworthy interviews ever. “The Decline Of Western Civilization III” (1998) covers LA’s homeless gutter punks.

The first “Decline” is the best one of the three that I’ve seen. I know because it’s the only one I’ve seen (I’m working on it). I also know because the first “Decline” nearly moved me to tears. This film is at times exhilarating and often moving. It’s a film that reminds you of the transcending power of music, both for the audience and for the artists themselves, but it’s also a reminder of its limitations. If nothing else, it’s a worthy tribute to an influential once in a lifetime music scene.

If you’ve read Michael Azerrad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life” (and if you haven’t then why not?) this movie is about the very beginnings of Azerrad’s indie underground. This is pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag when Ron Reyes was screaming and kicking through “Depression” and “Revenge”. X had just released their seminal Los Angeles album, proving to all the kids that you could actually play your instruments and get just as rowdy and vicious as hardcore could get. Or you could wait around for Circle Jerks to throw their guitars into their amps and create wonderful loud noises. Darby Crash was still alive, though at this point he could only grunt or aimlessly yell his way through “Manimal” (Crash killed himself right before this film’s release by an intentional heroin overdose, which turned the 22-year-old into a sort of martyr of the hardcore scene).

The bands featured in the film are Black Flag, Germs, Circle Jerks, Catholic Discipline, Alice Bag Band, X, and Fear. Of those bands, Spheeris interviews Black Flag, Germs, Catholic Discipline, and X. Everyone plays 2-4 songs at various LA hardcore clubs. No band sounds the same, yet they all share the same stage and play to the same crowd.

Much of “Decline”‘s success as a movie comes from the the way that it’s shot. During the shows there are a few cameras placed literally in the middle of the crowd and some at the side of the stage. During interviews you never see Spheeris – you only see the bands. Both the live performances an the interviews are so intimate that you feel like you’re intruding on a scene that you’re not allowed in.

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Penelope Spheeris has had quite the career: her “Decline” films are underground classics, yet you probably know her as the director of Wayne’s World. A most excellent movie indeed, but it’s strange that while she poked fun at the rock n roll world via Wayne and Garth, she actually documented the real thing for over a decade. This is not to discredit her other films (she also directed “The Beverly Hillbillies”, “The Little Rascals”, and “Black Sheep”), but “Decline” is her most essential. It was also the most controversial; according to Slate, the film only made it to two theater screenings before the LA Police Chief banned the film form being shown in the city.

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If “Decline” means anything new in 2015, it’s now a document of a pre-Internet music scene. With no social media to promote your album, you had to actually go to the shows and partake instead of swaying while texting on your phone. Nostalgia is a killer, but there’s something to be said about a music scene in which you actually had to be there.

But “Decline” doesn’t have to be anything more than what it already is, which is a well-edited documentation of two years of some of the most influential and polarizing music of rock & roll.

This summer the “Decline” films were rereleased in Blu-ray and DVD boxed sets. Do yourself a favor and watch these films.

Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber

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A List Of Major Music Publications (And Who Owns Them)

pitchfork-conde-nast-logoPhoto: Variety

Still freaking out about Condé Nast buying Pitchfork? Have no fear. There are plenty of great music publications that are also owned by major corporations.

This list is not all encompassing. This list is only focused on music-related publications and a few other entertainment and special interest publications. If your favorite website/blog is not listed here, then (for now) it isn’t owned by a major corporation. I also didn’t include which major companies have major equity investments in which publications, otherwise we’d be here all day…

This is as updated as I could make it. This list could change tomorrow.

Advance Publications Inc

  • Advance Digital (Regional Websites)
    • AL.com
    • cleveland.com
    • gulflive.com
    • MassLive.com
    • MLive.com
    • NJ.com
    • NOLA.com
    • OregonLive.com
    • PennLive
    • lehighvalleylive.com
    • SILive.com
    • syracuse.com
  • Condé Nast
    • Allure
    • Epicurious
    • Glamour
    • Golf Digest
    • GQ
    • Pitchfork
    • Self
    • Style
    • Teen Vogue
    • The New Yorker
    • Vanity Fair
    • Vogue
    • W
    • Wired
  • Reddit (it operates as an independent entity, but Advance is its largest shareholder)

Complex Media Inc.

  • Pigeons & Planes
  • First We Feast
  • NTRSCTN
  • Collider
  • Sole Collector
  • Four Pins
  • Green Label
  • Ride Channel
  • Triangle Offense

Gawker Media

  • Cink
  • Deadspin
  • Gawker
  • Gizmodo
  • io9
  • Jalopnik
  • Jezebel
  • Kotaku
  • Lifehacker

The Walt Disney Company

  • ABC
  • ABC Family
  • Disney Channels Worldwide
  • ESPN Inc. (Disney owns 80%, other 20% is owned by Hearst Corporation)
    • Grantland
  • Disney also owns pretty much everything.

Prometheus Global Media

  • Billboard
  • The Hollywood Reporter

SpinMedia

  • SPIN
  • Death and Taxes
  • Idolator
  • PureVolume
  • Absolute Punk
  • Direct Lyrics
  • Brooklyn Vegan (According to BV’s website this website is independent, but there is some type of advertisement-based relationship between these two.)
  • Buzznet
  • Under The Gun Review
  • Free Williamsburg
  • Stereogum
  • Vibe

Time Inc.

  • Time
  • Sports Illustrated
  • Fortune
  • Entertainment Weekly
  • People
  • InStyle
  • LIFE
  • Time Inc. UK
    • NME
    • Uncut

Wenner Media LLC

  • Rolling Stone
  • US Weekly
  • Men’s Journal

Vox Media

  • SB Nation
  • The Verge
  • Polygon
  • Curbed
  • Eater
  • Racked
  • Vox
  • Re/code

Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber

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Where Did The Term “World Music” Come From (and Should We Still Use It)?

music-notes-map-of-the-world-map-michael-tompsettImage: Michael Tompsett

“World Music” is one giant dump of a genre. Anything that sounds foreign or speaks in a different language can be shrugged off as world music. You can also define world music by what it’s not; it’s not mainstream or popular music, or it’s not music that belongs to you. World music is always someone else’s tradition.

My favorite description of world music comes from a fRoots magazine quote that I read a long time ago: “local music from out there.” It’s accurate, but it’s not right. Should we reduce an entire culture and history to just a place “from out there”?

Ian Birrell from The Guardian makes a good case that world music is an outdated and offensive term that puts non-western musicians into a sort of musical ghetto in which no person dares to enter. David Byrne, probably one of new wave’s most prominent ambassadors of world music, hates the phrase. Many people feel this way.

I understand that some people don’t care about where music comes from – I actually talk about it here – but I think we should all be aware of how the phrase “world music” causes confusion.

Many non-Americans consider Appalachian music and bluegrass to be “World Music”, yet we just call it “folk” or “Americana”. Is folk music world music? Was Bob Dylan a world music artist? What happens if you’re from South Africa but you sound like TV On The Radio (like BJK JKS)? Is that considered world music? I don’t think so.

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So where did the actual term “World Music” come from?

The best answer I know of comes from this Guardian piece: in 1987 Ben Mandelson and Roger Armstrong of Ace Records imprint GlobeStyle were meeting in a London pub trying to sell their current stock of records from around the world that weren’t selling. They came up with and coined the term “World Music” as a marketing tool to round up all the music that didn’t fit into the typical genre names. Having all this music titled under one description made it more appealing for record stores to stock those albums; it was a convenient short term solution that turned into a long term point of reference that we still use today.

I’m sure Mandelson and Armstrong didn’t mean any harm when they began using this phrase to make their records more accessible, but is it time that we move on from “world music”? What should we say instead? I have questions and only observations:

Trying to lump such diverse music under one umbrella hurts these musicians and what they represent. “Rock music” has plenty of variety, but very few people will complain about having the rock tag because it’s associated with sex, drugs, and, maybe once upon a time ago, profit. But to lump a bunch of music together that only has its non-Americanness (that’s a word right?) in common is lazy and, more importantly, disrespectful. For example, it’s easy to lump any music that comes from Africa and just say that it’s “African music”, but Africa is a diverse continent (and not a country) that has many different cultures and music. North African is not the same as West African, and the music reflects that. Even just “West African music” is a stretch.

I don’t have a fancy new phrase to coin here, but I think whatever replaces the term “world music” should put an emphasis on its place within a community or how much ties it has with the culture that it’s from. Maybe that’s the true meaning of world music.

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Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber

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You Don’t Need To Understand Art

james_2249735bPhoto: ALAMY

Back in September I was in Boston for a weekend visiting a good friend of mine who goes to Harvard. While she was in class, I killed time in the best way that I knew how – by exploring all of Harvard’s bookstores. This campus, according to several proud locals, has the most books stores per capita in America. I didn’t try and validate this, but Harvard seems like a reasonable place to have the most book stores in one concentrated area.

My favorite bookstore was the famous Harvard Book Store near Harvard Square. This store has been selling books since 1932 and it has pretty much every book you could ever want and more. Throughout the shelves are notes from the staff pointing out their selected favorites and why you should read them. Some notes were poetic and moving while others were short and funny, and they were all convincing. I was looking through the shelves and I found a note explaining why you should read James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of my favorite books and a notorious pick for being one of the most pretentious too-hard-to-read books along with Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow.

The person who wrote this (someone named Craig) knows how off-putting this book can seem. He also knows that reading Ulysses is an amazing reading experience if you have the right attitude.

Harvard

The note reads as thus:

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“You will need: Backpack, Flashlight, Patience, Sense of Humor

You will not need: Guidebook, MFA, Intimate Knowledge of Irish History, Prerequisite Reading Of Any Kind

Here’s the deal: you’re not going to get everything. This is perfectly fine. Why should you? Do you really understand your favorite song, or your favorite painting? That is: Is there really some concrete Statement being made that explains why you like what you love? There’s no reason to demand this from a novel. See if you like the words – how they sound. Treat it like a song. It is a beautiful song, an optimistic one. Yes, it is the most optimistic work of art that I have ever experienced. It is a magic spell, a love song for life. Don’t interrupt it with maps or facts. This is a breathtakingly well engineered sequence of words that are heartbreaking, hilarious, and hopeful.”

– Craig

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This note is about Ulysses, but you can apply this to music. You can apply this to all art.

You don’t need to understand art. Learning about the process of creating art and understanding its context in which it was created can help strengthen your appreciation, and if you create or write about music then it helps to know what you’re involved with. But it is not necessary.

Music is an escape. It comes from nowhere and it hits you in places you didn’t think existed. It’s communication that often doesn’t require words and it only needs to say one thing – you are not alone. I feel this too. It is a lie that tells the truth. It’s a complete mystery. It is my favorite thing in this world.

Music is the most wonderful thing, especially when there’s still wonder to it.

I think the Internet is taking away a lot of the mystery of art. Do you have a favorite musician? You can follow him/her on at least 8 different platforms. You can look up everything about that person and the information on the music. There’s probably a couple of thinkpieces out there about your favorite album and how it actually represents this and it actually means that and you’re supposed to understand it in this one way. And so on.

Steven Hyden makes a good point in his recent discussion of Kid A of how that album’s release changed the way we talk about music:

“If the music on Kid A no longer seems revolutionary — I eventually learned how much was cribbed from Brian Eno and Aphex Twin — the way in which listeners engaged with Kid A was legitimately new. For many music fans of a certain age and persuasion, Kid A was the first album experienced primarily via the Internet — it’s where you went to hear it, read the reviews, and argue about whether it was a masterpiece.

So much of what we now take for granted about the discovery and subsequent discussion of new music was ushered in with Kid A. Some things have changed since then — advance streams subsequently became traffic generators for media entities like NPR, and now streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music have emerged as go-to clearinghouses for sneak peeks at upcoming albums like the recent Drake/Future mixtape, What a Time to Be Alive, which debuted on Apple’s Beats 1 radio earlier this month and then immediately went up for sale on iTunes. In contrast, the pan-platform availability of the Kid A stream seems inconceivable today.

But the routine established by Kid A for how albums are digested remains in place: Listen early, form an opinion quickly, state it publicly, and move on to the next big record by the official release date. In that way, Kid A invented modern music culture as we know it.”

Modern music culture in 2000 that is. But then social media comes into play:

“Of course, old data must always make way for new on the Internet. As Pitchfork and countless other music sites have come to essentially ape the language of the old-world mags they supplanted, the wildness of Web 1.0 has migrated to social media, the principal arena for experiencing moment-by-moment reactions to the biggest “event” albums of recent years. (‘The new Pitchfork is just people talking about stuff on Twitter,’ says DiCrescenzo, who left the site in 2006.) The rosy Gen X nostalgia forKid A has since been overshadowed by the mountain of tweets expended for albums like Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, and Beyoncé.

The never-ending dialogue can seem overwhelming. In the space of a few days last week, Ryan Adams’s remake of Taylor Swift’s 1989 went from being a playful lark to a referendum on gender bias and the pop vs. rock divide. It was enough to make the act of listening to breezy pop songs feel like drudgery.”

That’s what listening to pop music feels like these days. Drudgery. I can’t just listen to something and enjoy it for what it is. I’m not allowed to just like Taylor Swift; I have to love her or hate her. I have to form an opinion and I have to share it now. Music needs an agenda. It has to mean something for all people.

Yet to enjoy music for its mystery is a beautiful thing. Knowing and understanding a song’s place within a specific context is nice, but sometimes I just want don’t want to think. I want to feel it. I want to feel inspired, feel grotesque, feel anything at all. Take me to a place where I’ve never been before. Cheer me up when I want to feel happy. Keep me company when I feel alone. Fill up the space in my head when I feel like something is missing. Come as you are.

Let music be what you want it to be.

Thanks Craig for reminding me of this important lesson. Now go out and read Ulysses. And enjoy the words.

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Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber

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