Thursday, December 22, 2011

Life as a Scatterbrain

Yesterday i watched the documentary Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, a compelling look inside O'Brien's "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour," which bridged the end of his Tonight Show run and the beginning of his TBS talk show. The film's above all a peek into Conan O'Brien the workaholic--the man who couldn't sit for six months while negotiating and planning a new TV show (which for most people would be a full-time job in and of itself, i'm sure). No, he had to also put together a 90-minute touring stage show to keep him occupied for what i can only assume is 16 hours a day--more if he gets less than eight hours sleep per night. Even during the documentary, Conan seems to be at times performing for the camera, only allowing himself to not be funny (or at least allowing himself to be pissy--i'm not entirely sure he's capable of being unfunny while he's awake) during brief, humanizing moments.

Today i read this GQ profile on Louis C.K., the writer, director, executive producer, editor, and star of possibly the best, most powerful show on television right now. The man's DIY cred is at an all-time high thanks to banking a million bucks through direct downloads of his latest comedy special, Louis C.K. Live at the Beacon Theater, a show that he, well, wrote, produced and performed himself, then sold directly to the public through his own website, in the tradition of Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, or any of those other bands that came into prominence thanks to major media outlets, then flipped the script by taking their fans with them into the independent wilderness. Of course, Louis obviously got to this point through a ton of work and dedication on his own--as Patton Oswalt glowingly points out in the GQ piece, "There are a lot of comedians who have the same potential, talentwise, that Louis has, but very few have the level of commitment he does."

This week's Monday Night RAW opened with a truly special moment for independent wrestling fans everywhere, as indie mainstays-turned-WWE Superstars CM Punk and Daniel Bryan stood in the same ring, holding the top two championships of the largest "sports entertainment" company in the world after years of toil and sweat as "small" wrestlers who don't have the look of classically marketable WWE superheroes like Triple H and John Cena:

People who follow wrestling have some inkling of what a hard, lonely road it can be to get somewhere and "make it" in the business--heck, only experiencing the peripheral fringes of the biz myself, i can see that while pro wrestling is full of amazing, hardworking people, it's also full of blowhard alpha-males only looking out for themselves, and i'm sure navigating that minefield is as difficult as perfecting the craft itself. But reading Punk's Twitter is like attending an online master seminar in drive and dedication--the dude claims to never sleep (and judging by the ever-present bags under his eyes, i believe it), and he's constantly on the move.

I often get accused of jealousy when writing about perceived bullshit in the world of music--oh, i'm just bitter because my band isn't as popular as the one i'm criticizing, my band doesn't sell, etc. While it's largely an empty, boilerplate critique--i suppose Roger Ebert is just jealous of all the filmmakers he gives negative reviews to, and his entire career is one big snit-fit because Beyond the Valley of the Dolls wasn't a blockbuster--the truth is that there is one thing that i envy in all the entertainers, artists, and musicians that i admire: their tireless work ethic.

There's a lot of creative stuff i love doing. I love drumming. I love writing songs and playing them in front of people (and yes, i also love the validation that comes when people actually connect with what we've done). I love writing. I love announcing roller derby. I loved being on the radio. But for one reason or another, i've never had the work ethic or drive to pick one of these things and pursue it until i collapsed dead from exhaustive excellence. I'm an above-average drummer if we're being charitable, and i play in an above-average band (if we're being charitable) that some people like but most people tolerate and ignore. I love calling roller derby, but i have no desire to throw myself as fully into that world as many of my announcing colleagues have. I loved being on the radio, but not so much that the world of commercial radio didn't send me screaming from the business (not to mention that the prospect of a nomadic life chasing the next rung on the ladder from one market to the next seemed like the most miserable existence ever to a 24-year-old homebody who went to college in Oshkosh because it was close to home).

When i lost my job in May, i suddenly had lots of free time to be creative and do things i never had the time to do. And while job hunting is a full-time job in and of itself, and thus i shouldn't beat myself up too much, there's a part of me that is mildly annoyed with myself that instead of starting work on my book ideas, i started this blog instead. The instant gratification of the "publish post" button is a quicker fix than the certainly more satisfying, but grinding, result of stringing together 50,000 words about one subject. It's a trap!

I do feel like i'm always busy, but instead of picking one thing to pursue nonstop, i picked several, in between lots of reading and watching TV. Jack of all trades, master of none, as the saying goes.

And now i'm starting a new job on Monday, one i'm excited but simultaneously nervous about. I left banking and customer service four years ago and lucked into a job copywriting for a local gaming website because, well, i wanted to do something creative for eight hours every day. When i lost that job in May, i looked for something else in the writing world, but unfortunately this economy wasn't having it. So back i go to customer service, but customer service in the music world, which excites me--working for a music store is going to be fantastic, and after months of going stir-crazy while trying to remain productive, i'm stoked to have something to do for eight hours a day again.

But i'd be lying if impending change wasn't spooking me out just a bit. My new second-shift-ish hours are filling my head with questions: will i still be able to keep up with this blog? Will i still be able to find the time to pursue that writing dream by freelancing for others? Will my shaky, scatterbrained sense of work ethic condemn me to nights of couch-surfing in lieu of maximizing my free time?

I'll never be Conan O'Brien, Louis C.K., or CM Punk. That much is obvious. The window for that obsessive single-mindedness has long closed. But as i start this next chapter of my life, it's important for me to prioritize what i do have: a still-stimulating band, a roller derby league that claims to be glad to have me, outlets for my rants and raves, and last but best, an awesome relationship with someone supportive of all of it. All things considered, living DJ Hostettler's life may not be as glamorous as that of the real workhorse stars in the world, but it's still a pretty charmed life as it is.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

CRISIS IN MILWAUKEE: Brewtown All-Ages Kids Believe the Rave is a Good Venue

If the emergence over the past few years of the Pabst Theater/Turner Hall/Riverside Theater group of venues as a music powerhouse in Milwaukee has been good for only one thing (and hey, it's been good for several), it's the number of bands it has pulled away from The Rave/Eagles Ballroom. A dire cavern with the atmosphere of your car's used air filter, most Milwaukeeans view The Rave as a cesspool of horrible sound, overpriced drinks and security guards that apparently didn't get their fill of beating up the weird kids during high school. Thankfully, since the Pabst group's rise to prominence, most of the national indie touring acts worth a damn have abandoned The Rave and left it to the metal, hip-hop, and juggalo scenes (which means that, unfortunately, one still has to endure watered-down $7 MGDs in order to see Anthrax or Mastodon).

So of course, much of Milwaukee had a good laugh when we found out that The Rave was awarded Alternative Press' reader's poll "Best Venue for a Show" honors. Sure, there was some gnashing of teeth as well, but that was from people who have forgotten Alternative Press' primary demographic: under-21 mallpunks with swoopy hair who apparently want Fall Out Boy to reunite.

Alternative Press stirs conflicting emotions in me: their editor-in-chief, Jason Pettigrew, is unquestionably the man. He's nutty, he's funny, and he has generally great taste in music. He's one of the guys who started AP when it covered bands like The Jesus Lizard and Killdozer and Dinosaur Jr., and--trump card--he's been a vocal supporter of my band in their pages. We were one of their 2005 "Bands you need to hear" (along with fellow Milwaukeeans Since By Man, if i recall correctly), and Jason said nice things about our first record in their pages in 2001. That being said, a glance at the readers' poll results for Live Band of the Year is enough to see that the magazine's target demo doesn't exactly intersect with ours.

Black Veil Brides, aka Five Nikki Sixxes

So with this in mind, it's not surprising that The Rave garnered so much support from Milwaukee mallpunx. Where else in town is Paramore gonna play? For these kids, The Rave is the only game in town. If anything, today's Rave-award-winning news reminded me that Milwaukee is still sorely in need of a viable all-ages venue.

Once upon a dream, Milwaukee had The Globe, a bar that altruistically disconnected its taps during late afternoons and put on all-ages shows featuring the same bands that would play for the over-21 set later in the evening. I doubt they made any money from this, since everyone knows that bars book bands to sell booze, but the desire to expose the kids to cool bands like Jawbreaker and The Dismemberment Plan was still a priority. Since the Globe closed down, there's been the occasional attempt to mimic its setup elsewhere--Cactus Club tried a couple all-ages shows (but if memory serves, got hassled by the man for its trouble and said the hell with it), and Mad Planet kept it going for a couple years before the attendance stopped justifying the effort. Milwaukee still has the all-ages Borg Ward DIY space, which is a treasure, but doesn't really pull the folks in unless they're booking hardcore or metal. We've also got the Miramar Theatre, but unless you know you can pull 200 kids, the cost to rent the space is prohibitive (which, what can you do? You can't sell beer to kids).

So there's really no viable space for small-scale indie bands to get in front of the under-21 crew in Milwaukee, and not being a businessman, i'm not sure what the solution is. Then again, i'm not sure if anyone wants a solution. While "researching" this blog post (read: chatting on Facebook), it was revealed that the Miramar's hosting a "F#@! Snow, Party! Show" in January with a bunch of local/regional bands that, judging from their haircuts, are right in the AltPress wheelhouse--including readers' poll winners for "My Hometown Hero (a.k.a. best unsigned band from my hometown)," Milwaukee's own Take the Day. Wait, who the hell are Take the Day and why haven't I heard of them?

Ooooh, that's why.

So, i dunno. Milwaukee, what do you think? Is the fact that kids in Milwaukee apparently consider The Rave a "fucking huge, beautiful, and haunted" place to see bands evidence that kids in Milwaukee are in desperate need of more options? I tend to think that most people longing for a return to the days of The Globe want kids to have a chance to see killer, smaller-scale indie rock bands in a cool setting; would kids even come out for music that doesn't sound like this?

I don't know. I'm old and out of touch (if Take the Day's 3,131 Facebook fans are any indication). Help me understand the children.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Great Record Excavation: C is for The Candy Machine

The Albums: The Candy Machine, #25 and A Modest Proposal (#25: Skene!, 1993; A Modest Proposal: Skene!/Eastwest, 1994

Who they were: Not much out there on the interwebs about this band anymore. The Candy Machine were based in Baltimore in the early 1990s. If from that information and a cursory knowledge of what normally can be found in my music collection, you were to infer that they were part of that era's Dischord/Desoto Records post-hardcore scene, you'd get a gold star, skip.

Where i got the record: is, in this case, not as interesting a story as why i bought them. Back in 1998, Yale Delay, the Wizard, and our friend Mandy started a silly little post-punk noise band called The Pop Machine. Our second show ever took place in a little coffee shop in Green Bay called the Factory, and we opened for a little Washington, DC based rock band called Smart Went Crazy. The vocalist for that band (who are essential listening, if you're not familiar) was a rad dude by the name of Chad Clark, who went on to form The Beauty Pill after Smart Went Crazy broke up on that tour (as the promoter, Rich Winker, claimed, in his living room the next morning, but that has little to do with this story). After we played our opening set, Chad was incredibly, flatteringly complimentary of us, saying he was shocked to learn that it was our second show. He then asked us if we had ever heard of a band called The Candy Machine, saying that he saw a lot of similarities between our band and that one. Curious, i picked up their first two discs from some Fox Valley used CD store or another, and gave 'em a spin or two before filing them away. To be honest, i didn't hear a lot of similarities between them and us, and i must not have been all that taken with the band, because i don't think i've touched these CDs since then.

Do they hold up? Here's the first fun thing i noticed about A Modest Proposal: this record came out on Eastwest Records in '94, which at the time was a Fake Indie subdivision of Atlantic Records. Back then, all the majors had these little satellite labels that got pasted on their "alternative" records in lieu of the majors' logo, lest the band have to deal with accusations of "selling out" (not like this worked; the zines caught on to that trick pretty fast, so Jawbox got plenty of guff for going major label, even though Atlantic slapped the vanity label "Tag Records" on them. Of course, the major label Jawbox record is as good or better than anything they put out on Dischord, so whatever). Thinking about the whole "fake indie label" routine in 2011 is powerfully weird; these days, if a big indie band signs to a major, no one blinks an eye, and in some cases, the reaction is one of "why would you do that? The majors are dying." In an age where indie bands are purposely tailoring their music to appeal to talent buyers for TV soundtracks and iPod commercials, and not being remotely shy about it (after all, no one's buying records anymore, right?), it's funny to remember a time when being perceived as a "sellout" was such a scarlet letter than majors tried to hide their dollar bills as much as possible.

In 2011, it's almost baffling listening to these records and thinking that The Candy Machine ever garnered major-label interest. Their sound is classic early-90s DC post-hardcore in the vein of Fugazi, landing directly in a sweet spot between the Monorchid's screaming hysterics and The Most Secret Method's unsettling, mellowed grooves. (Then again, 1993 was the year of In on the Killtaker, when music writers who didn't really have a grasp on Fugazi's ethics were certain that they'd be the next Nirvana, so it follows that a major in that era would want to throw an advance at any band with even a passing Fugazi similarity.) #25 in particular echoes many of Fugazi's quieter, more dub-inspired jams; the dreamy "Two Figures" features subtly rolling drums, a continually repeating bass/guitar groove, and laid back, crooning vocals from often-shouty frontman Peter Quinn.

While #25 is a heck of a debut full-length, and a solid entry onto the shelf of Fugazi soundalikes that emerged alongside Ian and company, the sophomore A Modest Proposal is the real winner here. #25 has a pretty homogeneous vibe throughout; Proposal shifts from high-energy post-punk car crash jams back down to the low-key interludes of the debut, while mixing up the instrumentation on those more meditative tracks. Random horns flow in and out of the mix, hooting or squawking based on requirement. There's a mature flow and thoughtful sequencing happening that makes Proposal a much more rewarding listen than #25. In songs like Proposal's "The Over Under Rule in Progress," there's a nervous energy undercutting the restraint, always threatening to and occasionally bubbling above the surface into an explosion of dynamics and discordance.

Looking back, i guess i can see why i didn't give these records too much of my attention back when i was 24; a lot of these tracks probably sounded awfully too "mellow" for my ears and just not rockin' enough, i dunno. But while a band like the Monorchid may still feel more viscerally exciting, with the constant threat of derailment always lording over their deliriously shambolic clanks and screeks, there's definitely room in my musical diet for some Candy Machine. I'm really glad i went back to these records; anyone with a taste for early 90s noise-rock would likely agree, i suspect. (Hey Absolutely guys--check these records out if you haven't yet!)

Download the first two Candy Machine records here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Guest Post! Rob from Waxeater Delivers His Favorites of 2011

(l-r. Rob, Elliott, Red Dog)

Waxeater are my boys, and some of the HiFi's most crucial of band bros. Their guitarist/singer, Rob Montage, is a HiFi pal from the days of yore (specifically, the yore days of June 2008), back when he played bass in Tremendous Fucking and we introduced ourselves to them by taking them to Stars Cabaret in Manitowoc, WI, North East WI's most...something...strip club. (The TremFu song "Covered in Bruises" was named as a direct result of that night, and that's just one of the stories the Wizard missed out on by reading in the van instead of buying $2 lap dance raffle tickets and $16 pint glasses of straight gin.)

Rob needed a public outlet for his Best of 2011 list and asked me if my dozen readers could be it. Why would i refuse? It's not like i was gonna get to letter C in the Great Record Excavation tonight (tomorrow, maybe?), and like any blog worth its SEO salt, my aim is to get my readers THE MOST CHOICE AND VIRAL WEB CONTENT. But i don't have that, so here's Rob's picks instead.

By the way, if you haven't listened to Waxeater yet, don't be a douche. You're missing out.

Music in 2011: The Year I Slept on Everything

I’m not kidding. I think I got one album right when it came out. I am usually a more devout music fan than this...but there was something weird about this year. Everyone I knew was getting knew records weekly and loving the shit out of them; meanwhile, nothing was clicking with me. Eventually I stumbled ass-backwards into some really quality stuff, but it sure felt like a long time coming. Here’s what I listened to in my admittedly narrow headphones:

THE BEST (in Alphabetical Order):

EPs: Future of the Left – “Polymers are Forever”/WHORES – “Ruiner”/Big Business – “Quadruple Single”

I’m certainly not giving a whole spot to three individual records that only total like 38 minutes between them. However, these dudes got very heavy rotation. I predicted last year that I would love the new FOTL and I was not let down. It took me a couple spins (like all their stuff does) but it wasn’t long before I was all SWEPT BACK JOE PESCI’S HAIR. The WHORES record came out, like, two weeks ago but fuck it that is some POWERFUL dolt-rock (being a genre I came up with to describe heavy, simple, yet awesome jams in the vein of early Helmet). Speaking of, these guys just sound like early Helmet, which rules since modern Helmet has exactly 0% John Stanier and Paige Hamilton looks like he is in a 24/7 Daniel Tosh lookalike contest. Also, their records are bad now. As for Big Biz, this EP was just a welcome return to form after the incredibly dire “Mind the Drift”. And speaking of dolt rock: guns are better than everything else.

Joe Lally – “Why Should I Get Used to It”

My god, this is the worst victim of my sleeping on it. It came out in March and I didn’t find out about it until November. Whoops...not like this guy was in one of the most influential bands in independent music. This for me, like Big Biz, was a welcome return to form. I found his last one, “Nothing is Underrated,” to be a snooze, especially after his baller debut record. I guess moving to Italy helped him discover the secret to me liking it: speed it the hell up.

My Disco – “Little Joy”

I’m fairly certain this came out at the beginning of January in the states, so it qualifies. I loved their last album and was stoked for this but boy is it different. It has the same repetitive/droney/stoney vibe, but there is just something weird and tinny about the drum he’s hitting Tabla’s Danny Carey style. I wasn’t feeling it at first and then it was eleven minutes later and the song was still on and I wanted to buy a bigger knife. I wish these guys would stop touring the states with Young Widows so someone would actually come to their shows and experience how awesome they are.

New Brutalism – “Personal Record”

These jerks. They recorded this TWO YEARS AGO as one of a double LP (in a custom aluminum box, natch) for their friend’s wedding. What a dick move! I mean, granted I’ve had the album for two years but they finally released it publicly. If you’ve heard one Brut song you’ve heard them all (as I have) and that is sort of what makes them brilliant.

Police Teeth – “Awesomer than the Devil”

This record is a goddmaned beast. Catchy as all hell, yes: but what really gets me about these guys every time is the lyrics. They are cynical about exactly the same stuff I am which makes me want to marry them. Especially Richy, because he gets the drunkest.

True Widow – “As High As the Highest Heavens and from the Center to the Circumference of the Earth”

There’s no way that fits on the spine of the CD, right? Maybe that’s the trick...force their label into getting vinyl. Realllll clever, guys. This band is great. It actually makes me wish I lived near my parents in Dallas. I don’t know really what to call it...slow-core? Too distored. Shoegaze? Not enough pedals. These guys do a slow burn very very well. I get hints of late period Swans, cool bands with paper-thin voiced girl singers and even a little Radiohead at times but louder and with some stones. This is some perfect cold weather walking around jams.

Wugazi – “13 Chambers”

I almost said fuck this on pretentious concept/cleverness alone. I am SO GLADD (puns!) I didn’t! Is there an original note on the record? No. Did they recontextualize two musical canons with gusto? I think so. This might have gotten the most rotation all year.

My Friends – Various Albums

I know there are supports of music I make but goddamnit some of my friends make me look like a stone cold asshole when they pick up an instrument. This was a banner year for records by my tight bros from way back when. The following are awesome bands I have the privilege to call friends who put out tight shit this year (in the order I could remember): Trophy Wives, Cartographer, Memory Map, Jabberjosh, Powerlifter, Girlfight, IfIHadAHiFi, The Men, and Humans.


Das Racist – “Relax”

This was a tough choice for me. Honestly I’m giving them this not just for "Relax," which is a great but imperfect record, but for their entire catalog thus far. These guys give me a serious case of QOTSA disease (wherein I just love everything they do. it’s a symptom of my Mcluskyim, if you feel me.) I just love what they do. I’m a sucker for literate rap and these jokers make me laugh, and make me think...just like John Frink do. Sorry, but I will be an apologist for these guys for at least two more records.


Hail Mary Mallon – “Are You Gonna Eat That?”

I love Aesop Rock but something about his collabo album with Rob Sonic just didn’t do much for me. Maybe it was the fact that Aes’ vox sounded like they were coming out of a garbage bag. Dude spits like 4596853847 words per verse, I’d love to hear a couple.

Iceage – “New Brigade”

So hypey. So so hypey. I gave it an honest 5 spins and I still can’t tell you if I’m feeling it or I hate it. Faint praise if I’ve ever heard it.

Fucked Up – “David Comes to Life”

Take a fucking pill, guys. This album is gruelingly long. Aaron made me turn it off in the van because I guess 74 straight minutes of this band is enough to break ever Red Dawg. Honestly there’s nothing wrong with it, there’s just too damned much of it. And why the hell is everyone freaking out about this thing? It sounds JUST like their last album, if not less catchy.

Obits – “Moody, Standard, and Poor”

Another honest five spin listen. I don’t think it’s totally my bag but I wanted to try because everyone my age and older I know loves it. There’s just something about the guitar tone that’s too surfy for my tastes. Oh well...I still like duder’s other bands and at least he’s still out there doing it and not making beats for Robyn or some shit.


“Ain’t it About Time Award” (make a new record already): this is a tie between Part Chimp and A Place to Bury Strangers. You are two of my favorite contemporary bands...time to shit out a new one, it’s been like three years. (and Part Chimp, less like thriller, more like I am come, kthnx)

“Thought it would rule, sucked a bag of dicks: The Award” (self explanatory): another tie! This time between Arctic Monkeys (who I genuinely enjoyed) and TV on the Radio. AM: I should have known from that fucking title. “suck it and see”? more like “see, it sucks” AMIRITE. And TVOTR: booooooooooooooorrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnng.

“Best Old Find Award”: a tie! This time between Helmet and Superconductor. Oh the early 90’s...why did I have to be 7-10 during you? I missed so much dolt rock. Also, what the fuck happened to Helmet? Was it the sweater vests? As for Superconductor, they
taught me a valuable lesson: A.C. Newman wrote a song called “Ride the Big Penis.”

“Bummer of the Summer Award” (worst music news of the year): Bloomington legends The Coke Dares look to be finally finished, what with their members being spread in Portland, Blooms and North Carolina. Funniest live band of all time (intentional category. Non-intentional winner: KISS). We’ll always have Fourth of July.

“Hummer of the Summer Award” (best music news of the year): Elliott survived.


- Austin: thanks everyone in Texas for your support during Waxeater’s ordeal! Especially Kelly, Dani, and Joe.
- Police Teeth: could you have been funner tourmates?
- Vanne Frank: thank you for not killing us this year
- Everyone that plays in a band I’m in: Ell-bo, Red Dawg, Joshy, Rachey, Rinne-Rinne,
Baby Drew, G, and last but least, Joey Haircut
- Milwaukee: still the best host city in America
- America’s 1%er Motorcycle Clubs: for not stabbing me...yet.
- Stroh’s Beer: for always making it easy to see who stole your hooch at a party
- Racist Husker Du: for being the funniest bit I’ve ever come up with on stage

- Austin: really? Thanks a lot GOD. Is this because we made fun of the thumb drive
- Police Teeth: fuck it, I’m saying it. I’m going to miss Frenchie.
- Vanne Frank: dude. No A/C and we spent five days in Austin in july. Youz a bitch.
- Tyler, the Creator: that shit was unlistenable, dude.
- The one guy who was a dick to Waxeater about canceling this summer: that’ll
come back on you, just wait.
- Magic the Gathering: for plunging me back into irrevocable nerdiness. Also, it’s a money-pit.

Ok, now everyone comment and congratulate me on a job...done.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Sexy Results Crew at Fermilab

On February 18, 2012, my band IfIHadAHiFi will be participating in a variety show called Sexy Results: Cedar Block's Dig for the Higgs and How the Quest Was Won at Turner Hall. The show is part of Alverno College's Alverno Presents series and is being produced by Mr. Cedar Block himself, Brent Gohde. If you're a Milwaukeean, you may recognize the Cedar Block name as the group that brought you a series of "weird science fairs" and a few rad art exhibits at the Milwaukee Art Museum during which local artists produced work inspired by a prominent MAM exhibit.

Sexy Results is a quest to assist the search for the elusive Higgs Boson by using art in lieu of the particle accelerators we Milwaukee artist types obviously can't afford. Since art, music and fiction have predicted several scientific advancements in the past (GPS, cell phones, speculation of life on Europa)--why not use it to help discover the particle (called "the God Particle" thanks to a book by that name written by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman) that assigns mass to other subatomic objects?

IfIHadAHiFi's role in this project is to write and perform a batch of songs in which, not unlike how we endeavor to make noisy music palatable to pop music lovers, we attempt to make particle physics more appealing to those who have no idea what the science is all about. We're currently working on a block of six songs that we'll be recording in January and performing selections from during the show in February. Several other artists are working on stuff as well, but instead of giving too much away, suffice to say that it'll be loads of multimedia silliness and fun. Science!

To inspire the myriad folks working on the project, Brent managed to arrange a trip to Batavia, Illinois' Fermilab, the home of the Tevatron, the recently-deactivated particle accelerator (or "atom smasher") that discovered the top quark and was working on the Higgs before its defunding. Eleven of us (including musicians Nick Sanborn and Lia Manley-DeRuiter, Alverno Presents director David Ravel, all-around geek Joe Kirschling, and the High Frequency Media guys) were given the regular public tour, but thanks to Brent contacting one of Fermilab's scientists before our arrival, we got a bit more than the usual tours.

Upon approach, Fermilab, in rural Batavia, begins to loom over the horizon like it's the Minas Tirith of science. The elegant Robert Wilson Hall towers over the middle of nowhere. Having wanted to visit this place for a few years, my pulse quickened as soon as i spied it in the distance, as once we were parked, we had to spend a minute to take it in up close.

We were greeted inside by a kindly former teacher, Michelle, who acted as our tour guide, and Kurt, one of the Fermilab scientists who has spent time working on the Higgs. He let us know that everything was still on schedule; we'd take the standard tour, eat lunch with some of the physicists who have worked on the Higgs, and then the coup de grace--we'd get to see part of the Tevatron itself. Uh, woah. Brent and i especially began buzzing like excited fanboys when we discovered that one of the scientists we'd be having lunch with was none other than Ben Kilminster, the Simpsons fanatic/musician scientist who is featured on the front end of The Atom Smashers, the PBS documentary about Fermilab and its adventures in the subatomic microverse. (He's also spotted in the documentary with his band playing a ska song in which all the lyrics are Linux code. This guy rules.)

The public tour was very cool and informative--Michelle filled us in with lots of history about the center and quizzed us on our knowledge of chemistry and physics, doing her best to explain a baffling field of study, including the Standard Model of particle physics, in common terms. Brent was as terribly adorable as a kid who was having his favorite bedtime story read to him, constantly asking our guide if she was going to tell us about x or y that he was told about the last time he took the tour. She was so impressed with Brent's knowledge of the subject matter and the tour that she hilariously asked him how long ago he worked at Fermilab.

This is an aerial view of the Hall's main entrance from the 15th floor.

A replica of the Tevatron's accelerator tubes was bookended by mirrors in order to achieve the proper effect.

This i just thought was funny.

The cafeteria provided some decent lunch options (i had a pretty good steak sandwich), but our scientists--the aforementioned Kurt and Ben, plus a young dude named Aron who is (if i recall correctly) part of the team analyzing data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, and showed us the control room where the Fermilab scientists communicate with the LHC crew--were quick to point out that the food at CERN is way better because they serve wine. Pssh. Europe. Kurt asked us to tell them more about Sexy Results, and Brent obliged. I feel like he may have felt the same as i did after the already-impressive tour: here we were among some of the most brilliant minds in the world, people who have been studying particles and actually looking for the thing that enables the Universe to have mass and definition, and here we are gearing up for a doofy art project where we're going to try to "find the Higgs" via art when we have about as much knowledge about this stuff as a second grader learning cursive has about Shakespeare. But as he described the project, the big brains responded positively and with enthusiasm (when Brent explained that "sexy results" is a Simpsons reference, you could see Ben's wheels start to turn as he tried to pinpoint the episode in his head). All in all, they were excited to see artists eager to promote particle physics, especially when those artists have a healthy nerdy streak as well (Ben also lit up when Brent mentioned The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and how the Higgs relates to the answer--and question--of Life, the Universe, and Everything).

After lunch, it was time for the main event. We were led to another building and down some stairs to an underground chamber where, upon entering, my heart skipped a beat as i thought i saw the CDF (the Collision Detector at Fermilab - the actual instruments that measure the reactions as protons and antiprotons collide in the Tevatron) out of the corner of my eye. However, it was merely a matte photograph on a tapestry showing where the CDF gets rolled to when it needs to be worked on. It was a false alarm that made up for itself mere minutes later as we went down another flight of stairs, walked around a corner, and all sharply inhaled as we suddenly were in the same room as the three-story measuring tool that first observed the top quark in 1992. Thanks to former Fermilab director Leon Lederman's assertion in The God Particle that particle accelerators are the modern-day version of Stonehenge--an ancient structure built in an effort to greater understand the universe--i felt like i had just arrived at the Pyramids or Stonehenge itself, like i had just arrived at a modern wonder of the world, a place made mystical through man's attempt to understand his Universe through science. Look, it was pretty fucking awesome.

We were told that, when compared to the much larger, 25-meter high ATLAS collision detector at the LHC, the three-story CDF is very "cute" looking. Also, compared to a Tyrannosaur, i guess a Velociraptor looks like a cute cuddly kitty.

The CDF, now deactivated and defunded, is on its way to becoming a museum exhibit, Battlestar Galactica-style. While we were in the CDF room, we were informed that we were the first public tour to see it in person since its deactivation. Michelle, our tour guide, remarked that in ten years of giving Fermilab tours, this was the first time she had ever seen it in person. Chills, y'all.

I'm not sure i can adequately express my gratitude to the Fermilab staff for letting our gang behind the curtain. I feel extraordinarily privileged to have been this close to a piece of American scientific history, and i left Fermilab completely energized and anxious to pour as much energy into these songs as possible. It may not be the amount of energy that the Tevatron was able to generate, but as Brent has been saying...with us, it's about the angle of the collision more than the velocity.

Of course, it hasn't resulted yet in a huge output of lyrical content, but i'm working on it. Trying to write multiple songs about particle physics is very difficult when you don't want the lyrics to come out sounding as hokey as the Barenaked Ladies' Big Bang Theory theme song. Speaking of that show, by the way, many of its comedic stereotypes about supernerds and huge brains were proven wildly off base by the Fermilab scientists--not only did they all display perfectly normal social skills, but all three of them sported wedding rings. Particle physicists get crazy mad laid, y'all.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Martian Dance Invasion's Favorites of 2011!

2011 was a banner year in that nebulous musical genre known as "Stuff DJ Likes." Seriously, in most years my Top 10 has to be filled out by records from previous years that i had only that year discovered. This year there was so much rad stuff out there that not only have i been forced to expand to 15 to include some tunage that you need to be aware of, but i'm fully aware that there are records out there that i still haven't managed to listen to that probably would have made it onto the list (my profuse apologies to Brief Candles and Hurry Up Shotgun for not getting to your records yet. I'm honestly pretty disappointed in myself. Not sarcasm).

As i pointed out last week, i'm not doing this for a living (obviously), so i don't have the benefit of having myriad labels and PR companies throwing promo discs at me. On the other hand, i feel like it means that i came to this list organically (in fact, of the 15 acts in the list, 12 are ones i've seen live). These are records i went out of my way to hear and in some cases, had to really dig for. If you find one new band that trips your trigger in this post, i will have done my job; feel free to let me know what i missed in the comments. So, without further ado...

DJ "DrAwkward" Hostettler's 15 Favorite Releases of 2011 (Compiled Without the Benefit/Shackles of PR Deluging)

15. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong

Here's what's weird about Belong:

Most people familiar with my musical musings know that i abhor Smashing Pumpkins. I think that they were an overrated cash-in by a careerist hack who saw the writing on the wall in the late 80s and donned the sheep's clothing of Alternative Nation at the right time (see also: Cuomo, Rivers). Great trend-spotter, shitty performer--but then, knowing how to market is a more valuable wealth-building skill than musical talent.

So it's funny to me that i practically listened to this disc--which sounds like a collection of songs crafted by an Earth-295 version of the Pumpkins that didn't totally suck--on repeat through much of the first half of 2011. The wispy vocals, the alternately fuzzed and shimmering's Siamese Dream without all the overwrought croaking and orchestral chimes and songs ostensibly about abortion or whatever. ('s Gish? Um...maybe this thesis applies more to the title track than the rest of the record...)

Of course, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart stand on their own as a killer Britpop/shoegaze hybrid and have managed to more than compensate for their awful band name. "The Heart in Your Heartbreak" contains some of the most infectious wordplay of 2011 and inspired some serious head-bobbing in the car. That toffee-thick keyboard line at the end of the song sends it over the edge into potential Best Single of 2011 territory. Wait, was it even released as a single? I don't even know. Music journalism!

14. Absolutely - Learns to Love Mistakes

Milwaukee's Absolutely produced a truly captivating, powerfully driving throwback to the days of moody, ponderous noise-rock like Unwound and some of the forgotten gems of mid-90s Dischord Records post-hardcore like Hoover and The Crownhate Ruin. Learns to Love Mistakes mines territory that has otherwise been relegated to the dollar bin of indie-rock history while adding a fresh Beer City perspective, tying crunchy, intricate guitar harmonies and seemingly off-mic, shouty vocalizing together into extended compositions that flow despite their complexity.

Ironically, a highlight for me is the second half of "Denim on Denim," which breaks down and briefly strips away all the killer riffage and showcases what holds the whole convoluted mess together--the loose-but-locked-in rhythm section of drummer Charlie Hosale and bassist Andy Mcguire. It's hard to call them a "secret weapon" when they constitute two-thirds of the band (and especially when all their on-stage lighting emanates from inside Hosale's kick drum), so let's just call them what they are: a rhythm section that shuffles with a Verbal Kint hitch but packs the mental sledgehammering of Keyser Söze. You'll gasp and gape at how obviously it all falls together, and how you didn't see it coming.

13. Wild Flag - S/T

Yeah, i know--it's not Sleater-Kinney. But you have your Sleater-Kinney records to listen to whenever you want. Meanwhile, here's a quartet of pals who got together to have fun because, dammit, they felt like it. And it sure is fun. And catchy. And dance-around-the-living-room-waving-arms-over-head bouncy. And, well, hell, Carrie's playing guitar and Janet's drumming, so it can't help but be a little S-K-ish. Which is, of course, a great thing. Welcome back, girls!

12. TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light

I was surprised to like this album as much as i did, considering it's such a mellow downscaling from previous TVotR releases, but Nine Types of Light defies comparisons to Dear Science and others by virtue of its uniqueness in their catalog. "Killer Crane" is a hypnotic distillation of everything that makes TVotR compelling artists: a seamless mix of the folksy and ultra-modern (throwing banjo and cello into the synthetic mix), tied together by Tunde Adebimpe's powerful yet vulnerable, humanizing vocals. But while "Killer Crane" is a subdued, meditative ballad on an album with lots of mid-tempo chilling, there are still plenty of rockin,' hard-dancing hip-churners on here (not the least of which is the groovy "No Future Shock" and "Repetition").

I finally got to see TVotR live this year and was absolutely floored by how full their music sounds live. I expected a lot more loops and sequences, yet the band seemed to be handling pretty much everything live, giving every song a perfectly organic, acoustic/electric groove that pulled the entire Pabst Theater audience along like fish on a hook. The song selection that built to the set's explosive climax had the audience bubbling and frothing until "Wolf Like Me" (if i remember correctly) triggered an explosive boil. It's been a long time, if ever, since i've seen a crowd that locked in with the band. No comparisons to a celebrant church congregation could do it justice.

11. Northless - Clandestine Abuse

"Dick-flatteningly heavy" was the phrase a European friend of mine used to describe Clandestine Abuse, by far the best Milwaukee record i heard this year, when i pointed him to it back in March. It opens up with unrelenting force and volume as Eric Stenglein bellows over the proceedings like a bear that was awoken a month into Winter.

And yet, as the album progresses, harmonies and downright pretty songwriting flourishes emerge like a zombied butterfly fighting its way out of amber. The sequencing of Clandestine Abuse is inspired genius--open with pummeling assaults on the eardrums and temples so that by the time Eric actually sings on the unnervingly beautiful "The Storm," the full in-album evolution from thundering doom metal to earnest, heart-wrenching doom-metal is complete. Look, this record is so good that Kuma's Corner in Chicago made the "Northless" its specialty burger of the month in March. If that's not a ringing endorsement for a metal band, then none exist.

10. Future of the Left - Polymers are Forever (EP)

Speaking of evolution -- Future of the Left's lineup reshuffling (replacing bassist Kelson Mathias with Julia Ruzicka from Million Dead and adding Jimmy Watkins on guitar) opened doors for Andy Falkous to play around and experiment with what was an already-winning formula that resulted in one of 2009's best records, their sophomore Travels With Myself and Another. The piss, bile, and snarkily smart-assed lyricism that was present in that other band that existed before this one carried over, but with a, well, evolved sense of post-punk songwriting and riffcraft. Now, with an extra guitar in the mix, Falco has free reign to fuck around with synths as much as he wants, and the results speak for themselves in the opening title track of this EP (included on this list of albums because it towers that far over so many other releases this year). "Polymers are Forever" starts with disjointed synth stabs and the barest minimum of drumming, only to cohere into the most infectious earworm of 2011's second half as Falco repeats "pullin' me down, then i'm dead, then i'm gone" until you're still not tired of it.

The rest of the EP, of course, sounds nothing like the title track, veering from kamikaze punk blasts to nigh-comedic polka to the galloping grunge of the closing "" It all forecasts a 2012 full-length that is guaranteed to make my top 10 list next year as well. But with Future of the Left cementing their foothold as one of my favorite currently-active bands with the challenging, diverse and searingly brilliant Polymers are Forever, they could likely reimagine the soundtrack to Meet the Feebles and i'd hail it as some sort of rationalized genius.

9. Parts & Labor - Constant Future

Parts & Labor were a band that a friend of mine had gotten after me to listen to for about a year or two before a new record provided an excuse to finally get on that shit. What i discovered was Constant Future, a dazzling achievement in crafting savory pop morsels out of bloopy-bleepy noiseboxes and absolutely blistering drumming (Milwaukee native Joe Wong, you are a beast).

The secret genius of these songs is that while there's so much going on in them, the musical composition behind the synths and samples is actually fairly basic--if this were a guitar rock album, it'd be handed as many Who comparisons as Call Me Lightning's record from last year. It's non-stop triumphant, soaring arena rock anthems that just so happen to be communicated with keys and buttons instead of strings. And yet, as with TV on the Radio, it all sounds perfectly organic and not at all sterile. They also put on a hell of a live show, as evidenced by their room-packing appearance at Cactus Club on a Monday night(!) early this year (did i mention Joe Wong is a beast?). Thanks for ensuring i check these guys out, Chicago pal who doesn't like her name put on the internet!

8. The Blind Shake - Seriousness

Truth be told, The Blind Shake are a much more ferocious band than what they let on in recorded form. On record, they are a more than capable surf-tinged garage band writing bite-sized blasts of reverb-soaked frenzy, but live, they're an explosion of psyched-out, double-picked noise-punk that overwhelms you in high kicks, jumps, stomps, and walls of feedback before unplugging everything 23 minutes later, leaving you to ask yourself what the hell just happened. It's criminal that one of the most searing live bands on the planet is also one of the most obscure, but so it goes in this day and age.

Still, Seriousness stands on its own with Ventures-informed nitro-burning guitar play and high-pitched vocals that leave the listener checking to see if their iPod's set to 78 RPM before realizing that, duh, they stopped making 78s long ago. "I'm Not an Animal" plows along in the most base primal punk tradition while "Hurracan" forcibly breathes new life into twelve bar blues. It's a great record, but i'd be lying if i didn't cop to ranking this a little high by projecting memories of the live show onto the wax.

7. Obits - Moody, Standard & Poor

Has any recent punk musician settled into the role of cool, laid-back elder statesman more effectively than the formerly throat-shredding voice of Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes, Rick Froberg? Obits expertly blends the urgency of those earlier, thrillingly essential outfits with the casual, effortless vibe of Creedence Clearwater Revival, of all frickin' people, and it works so well. Moody, Standard & Poor doesn't do a lot to expand from the formula that made their debut, I Blame You, a winner, but they don't have to because it still sounds completely fresh and revelatory. Anyone who thinks Obits comes off as "lazy" or "half-assed" is coming at this from the wrong angle; just because these cats aren't flooring it to the payoff a la Jehu or Hot Snakes doesn't mean there isn't fire under their asses. Instead of going nova and flaming as hot as possible, there's a slow burn underneath every Obits song that carries over to the next, slowly building to a crescendo that could be years in the making, but the journey is oh so captivating. The shuffle of "I Want Results" and the swagger of "You Gotta Lose" and "Killer" add to a growing arsenal of reserved, confident ass-kickings that won't lose steam after a mere three records, and i can't wait to hear how this band sounds five albums deep.

6. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

Oh, to inhabit the brain of Annie Clark for a day, just to poke around and reverse engineer a reasonable facsimile of her songwriting process. The weird, alien angles she lets herself be photographed in only hint at the otherworldliness of her Baroquely Europan craft.

Full disclosure: Actor never really clicked with me, and i'm still not sure why. I suspect that, with so many bands i love, it comes back to having my ass handed to me in the live setting at the Pabst Theater, then finally getting my hands on Strange Mercy and immediately understanding what's going on in every little fold and crease between processed guitar and cosmic arrangement. The rhythmic intricacies of this record somehow teeter between completely illogical and completely captivating; while St. Vincent's music is nowhere near the thrash-punk metaphor of a runaway locomotive, the off-kilter vocals and guitar runs still leave the audience wondering when everything's gonna come spilling off the tracks--which, of course, it never does.

As has been mentioned elsewhere, live covers of Big Black's "Kerosene" and the Pop Group's "She is Beyond Good and Evil" have assured Clark of a degree of unimpeachable cool, but it's obviously the original material that seals the deal. To be a dazzlingly off-kilter guitar wizard, write trippy dreamscapes like "Neutered Fruit," and have killer taste in cover songs? Forgetaboutit. I'm sold for life.

5. Crooked Fingers - Breaks in the Armor

And there i thought that Crooked Fingers had run out of steam. So did Eric Bachmann, apparently, having taken off to Taiwan with little intention of recording solo material ever again. And yet, what should emerge from his stay on that island but the best Crooked Fingers release since the 2000 debut, Breaks in the Armor. The opening twofer of "Typhoon" into "Bad Blood" is classic Bachmann--a moody harbinger of what's to come followed by a full-scale landslide of earthy, bourbon-soaked romance built from weathered guitars and department store keyboards. This release has the added bonus of guest vocals from Athens singer-songwriter Liz Durrett, adding lovely background harmonies behind Bachmann's endearing half-croak, half-croon.

In this day and age of folksy beardos getting so much indie-music love, it's patently absurd that Crooked Fingers isn't huge, but screw it--if it means that the band's destined to forever pack rooms the size of the Cactus Club, it's the world's loss and my gain. As Juniper Tar's Ryan Schleicher said to me at their brilliant Cactus performance last month, "it's a crime that he's not bigger than this, but selfishly i don't want him to be." Ooh, you mean we get to stand mere feet from the man as he hunches over and spills himself into his microphone, and we never have to deal with a six-foot-high stage or barriers and security douchbags? Fine, mainstream--you can have those other guys. We're good to go.

4. The Poison Control Center - Stranger Ballet

One major regret i have from this year is the unfortunate timing of a trip i took to Oakland in July with the girlfriend. I was tagging along on a work trip, so there was no rescheduling, and it was a great time, but it also meant that i missed The Poison Control Center at (of all places) Bad Genie. Everything i've heard and read about their live show suggests that it'd rank up there with the heavyweights--The Blind Shake, Melt-Banana, the pAper chAse, etc. Alas, while 20 people at Bad Genie witnessed pure pop Armageddon (while friends of mine in the audience gleely texted me details of what i was missing), i must be content with being hopelessly addicted to Stranger Ballet, a pure, perfectly cut power-pop diamond in the Iowan rough.

God damn, this record. Who else could make "your day's just shit and piss" sound like the cheeriest affirmation of life's inherent awesomeness? And yet, that's the first sentiment expressed in the opening "Torpedoes on Tuesday," an immediately infectious morsel that uses a simple, delicate keyboard line to rope the audience in for what explodes into grandiose summertime rave-ups and singalongs. From then on, it's non-stop humming and head-bobbing and hopping and flailing and dancing on the hardwood in your jammies. There are goofy random noisy bits for the post-punkers, balls-out guitar hero madness for the rockers, laid-back fuzz for the Pavement-loving slacker indie rockers, and sugar, syrup and hooks for EVERYONE. My GOD, how is this band not on every magazine cover in the country? That "Seagull" and "Reoccurring Kind" are not burning up radio charts and sparking a revival in Big Star's album sales with their joyous Gospel-level rapture is a structural and institutional failure of America's popular culture. FIX IT, PEOPLE.

3. Helms Alee - Weatherhead

My love affair with Helms Alee began with a sweaty, drunk festival show in the basement of Seattle's Cha Cha Lounge, where my inebriated jaw was unable to do anything but hang agape while Ben Verellen, Dana James, and Hozoji Matheson-margullis did their thing. Their thing, incidentally, is a confounding and thrilling hodgepodge of mathy, melodic, and brain-squelchingly heavy doom metal that somehow occupies whatever territory lies between the Melvins and Unwound. While their debut, Night Terror, was a glorious jumble of rolling drums, moody, forceful guitar and bass, and alternating female harmonies and male screams, it all sounds downright straight-laced compared to their brilliant follow-up, Weatherhead. "8/16" is a five-minute tour de force of stylistic shifts and 90-degree inertia-defying twists and turns, showcasing everything that makes Helms Alee one of the most captivating heavy bands going.

Of all the entries on my list, this is one whose omission from most every best-of list i've seen absolutely confounds me. This is a band that knows exactly what its strengths are and plays to them while taking massive risks (in the case of this record, long, ponderous interludes and sleepy meditations) that pay off nearly every time. I haven't heard a heavy record this adventurous in some time--maybe because i don't often seek out a lot of stuff on the heavier end of the spectrum. Is that it? Am i sitting over here having my mind blown by something that seasoned metalheads consider routine? It's hard to fathom, because intelligently, thoughtfully crafted compositions that also bash your head in seem pretty hard to come by unless they're bogged down in annoying virtuoso wankery or pretentious prog rock. Helms Alee avoid pretense by virtue of being goofballs that just happen to be intensely talented and driven to kick asses nationwide.

2. Police Teeth - Awesomer Than the Devil

Full disclosure: these dudes are my labelmates and brothers, and every time i get to hang out with them is special times. That being said, part of why i love them so much as people is because they consistently put out incredible, buzzy indie-rock that gets me and that i've loved before meeting them all in person (excepting their guitarist James, but that's a long story involving broken teeth and Everclear and it'll just get us off subject). As they astutely described themselves on their old MySpace page, their sound can be summed up this way: "if you're over 25, Superchunk meets the Wipers. If you're under 25. Hot Snakes meet the Thermals." Of course, they wrote that five years ago, so maybe we should bump that age to 30. (Aging, amirite?)

Awesomer Than the Devil continues many of the aging, jaded rocker themes that spun 2009's Real Size Monster Series into a concept album about the foolhardiness of devoting part of one's life to playing in a touring rock band (something admittedly not everyone can relate to); "Rock & Roll is a Pyramid Scheme (Parts 1 & 2)," in fact, advises we musical hobbyists to not "take this shit so seriously." They're dudes in the same spot as me--in it for life, but in a realistically compartmentalized manner. No, they'll never be famous, for whatever reason--they can't/won't tour extensively (does that even help anymore?), they can't afford PR, no one smells a hit single (which is just nuts), but when they're doing their thing, they do it with more heart and passion than most of the bands who get it handed to them on the proverbial silver platter. A dollar is worth more to a poor person than to a rich one, and putting out a killer record or playing a rippin' show matters more to guys like Police Teeth than to, say, the Strokes, a band with rich parents who i'm sure had nothing to do with them getting a record deal. Just saying.

1. Memory Map - Holiday Band

More full disclosure! Memory Map contains band buddy Mike Bridavsky of Russian Recording in Bloomington, IN, who previously shared the stage with my band in the excellent noise-rock ensemble Push-Pull. When he showed up in Milwaukee with this new outfit, the only thing i knew was that they most definitely are not noise-rock. But what i wasn't expecting was a hard driving, alt-country flavored rock band that could be best described as a psych-tinged Allman Brothers. But that glosses over everything that makes Holiday Band the record that i kept going back to for repeated listen after repeated listen in 2011.

The closing track, "Protection Clause," is a case study in what makes the entire record such a poignant listen. Cascading, interweaving guitar lines bob in and out and around each other while the vocals wistfully explain some vague truth about life and friendship that any listener can project into the lyrics.

so let's be honest come and see me
a lesson i've learned is "don't wait"
if afterwards it seems it just wasn't meant to be
at least we weren't stuck standing in the rain

Gorgeous vocals, gorgeous guitar work, propulsive, solid drumming, hummable melodies...slam dunk, y'all. There isn't a single record i went back to more this year to end a night, score a road trip, or just zone out, and i've been recommending it to everyone within earshot since i first picked up the record in May. So here's one more--give this stuff a spin. If it's not your bag, well, at least i tried and at least so did you.

Honorable Mentions: Records from 2010 That Would Have Been on 2010's List Had I been Paying the Fuck Attention

2. My Disco - Little Joy

It took me months to get myself a copy of Little Joy after learning late last year that it had been released; had i been a little more aggressive in finding it, it would have made the list last year as an easy top 5. My Disco's uber-minimalist tranced-out dance beats and grooves constitute some of the most exciting music i've heard in recent years. One chord--sometimes one note--or one beat repeated for six to nine minutes. Tension and...tension. I imagine the remixes for this record sound great if you're on drugs. None of this sounds like what you'd expect one to say about a band that took their name from a Big Black song, but there it is. My Disco is about picking a vibe and running with it until the audience is hypnotized to purchase their record when they use a secret trigger word, which frankly is way more effective than backward masking.

1. Pregnant - Pregnant LP

These guys reside in Brooklyn, but if they're stereotypical trust fund Williamsburg hipsters, it doesn't show in their music, which is lean, bullshit-free post-punk, a fevered amalgam of Mission of Burma and Radio Birdman that gets its point across in songs averaging two minutes or less in length. The single "Wanna See My Gun?" is a comparative marathon at 4:15; no other song even comes close. And there's a totally refreshing don't-give-a-fuck vibe to the entire proceeding; they pressed 300 copies of an album that looks like the cover art was printed at Kinko's because they wanted to press a cool-looking record with the most minimal overhead, and then, just to get people to listen to the music, they put the whole record up on Bandcamp for FREE. Ridiculous. No frills punk rock that's as gripping as it is high energy. I hope i get to see them live someday.

Get Off My Lawn: Why the Hell Do People Love These Crap-Ass 2011 Releases

2. Washed Out - Within and Without

It was bad enough when Vampire Weekend turned Paul Simon's Graceland into an "influential indie touchstone;" now we have part of the stupidly labeled "chillwave" movement trying to do the same to even more limp-dicked 80s groovers like Billy Idol's "Eyes Without a Face" or the entire Berlin catalog. I dunno if the dude behind Washed Out is old enough to remember how uncool that nonsense was in the 80s, but i'm really afraid he legitimately thinks there's something to be said for writing boring-ass background music that would fit perfectly behind Tom Cruise giving it to Kelly McGillis in Top Gun. The perfume ad cover art certainly suggests that he's more into contrived love scenes than shooting down fricking MIG fighter planes. People, "chillwave" isn't a genre; it's a bunch of dudes in bedrooms that think Bloodsport needed more love scenes and less underground MMA.

1. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver

If Bon Eye-ver were from any other part of the country, i'd likely relegate his forgettable lilting falsetto to the Fleet Foxes/Mumford & Sons "meh" column--lame, but nothing to get worked up about. But no, Mr. Eye-Ver hails from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and when someone or something from Wisconsin happens to get a little bit of national love, the entire Wisconsin media goes apeshit. "Look, everyone! We can become famous too! We're not provincial small-town nobodies after all!" Really, i suppose my beef isn't so much with Mr. Eye-Ver (to whom i give massive props for his comments "pooh-poohing" the Grammys--although The Avalanches have a good point about dude's whiskey endorsement) as it is with the breathless mystique that's risen around him thanks to his PR and his cabin in the woods story and all that nonsense. Dear Wisconsin media: stop it. And by the way, Milwaukee media? Stop pretending he's Milwaukee's property. Just because we're the largest city in the state doesn't give us an immediate claim on the entire state's cultural output. God forbid Zola Jesus blows up and we end up in a pissing match with Madison over one of their own.

Oh, and speaking of dudes making music for Top Gun fanfic sequels...

Friday, December 2, 2011

Rock and Roll is a Pyramid Scheme

I've been mentally adjusting my personal "best records of 2011" list in anticipation of writing it out for both this blog and for my acquaintance Matt's annual Top 10 Party and Blog, and it's led me to think a whole lot about something that's been brought up among a couple of us in the Latest Flame camp: the shifting role of money and social class in popular music. I mean, let's not play naive or stupid or anything; obviously, money's had a lot more to do with who becomes popular than music itself does for as long as we've had a record "industry." That's not news. But with the advent of the internet, MySpace, filesharing, Bandcamp, etc., a lot of writers all but declared a new era of independent freedom and visibility for even the most basement-ridden of obscure basement bands. Now artists can charge what they want to for recordings without need of a Big Record Label, and anyone can be discovered on their MySpace page, conveniently ignoring that the only artists who can make money off pay-what-you-want downloads are those who previously built an audience thanks to major-label ad dollars, and not realizing that thanks to the now deafening din of billions of media players on millions of Bandcamp pages, those dollars still have to get spent on PR and advertising in order to get them heard by the folks peddling the most influence.

It's not necessarily as nefarious as all that, of course--i'm sure the fine folks at Pitchfork and Spin and what have you are genuine music lovers. But when you have hundreds of PR firms flooding your desk with thousands of promo CDs that you'll never get through, how much time do you have to actively search for new music on your own? I'm asking--i don't really know. I'd assume some effort has to be put in; i know for me the temptation to get lazy and just focus on what's on my desk would be overwhelming, and thus, i'd likely miss out on a lot of the records that i'll be listing in my year-end selection.

I don't do this for a living, so when i rank my favorite albums of the year every December, it's just that--my favorites among what i've heard that particular year. This year, i probably managed to hear somewhere around 30 new releases, which is really good for me. But it also means i definitely missed some records that i'm sure i'd have loved. So it goes--there's only so much time in the day, even when you've been unemployed since May (actually, that could account for why my number is so high this year). I find new music from friend recommendations, a few places i trust online (which aren't many), and most of all, from going to and playing as many shows as i can. I'm in the shit, y'all.

On the flip side, i'm bracing myself for a bunch of "best of the year" lists at the usual Big Music Mags that will look awfully similar to each other. Paste already crowned Bon Iver by Bon Iver their #1 of the year, because of course they did. (Spoiler alert: that record will not be on my list.) Absolutely put out a record this year easily as good as anything on Paste's list, but they're a local Milwaukee band with no one championing them but themselves, Steven Hyden (who mentioned them in an AV Club piece earlier this year only to be met with snide "i've never heard of them, so Hyden must be trying to earn hipster points" comments) and me, i guess, so what are the odds that someone from, say, Pitchfork or Spin saw Hyden's post, saw a name they were unfamiliar with, and gave it a shot? Is that their fault? Not necessarily, because "Absolutely," while being sort of a ridiculous name for a band in the first place, is just one in a wild blur of band names they see every single day. Law of averages. That's just the way of the music world.

So when i run my list, i will be sure to list it as my "favorite" records of the year, not the "best of" the year, because that's a silly thing to say when i haven't heard every note that was recorded in 2011. And when the Big Boys run their "best of" lists, we should probably remember that it's just their favorites as well, because while they listened to a lot of stuff, they missed a lot as well, and for the opposite reason.

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Speaking of the authors of the song from which the title of this post came from, Radio K in Minneapolis had our boys Police Teeth and Waxeater on to perform live last June when the bands toured (and came through Milwaukee, which many of you missed. Shame upon your families). Three songs from each performance are now up on their site (and may have been for a while, i dunno--i just found them today thanks to Rob from Waxeater), and you can hear them for yourself by clicking here for Police Teeth, and here for Waxeater. Bands we like.