Tuesday, November 10, 2015

And Now For Some Good News....

I tend to rant about the left and identity politics here, so I wanted to not rant about the left and identity politics. A couple pretty good things happened in the past week on that front.

Berkeley High students walked out after a racist message was found on a school computer. Maybe you are thinking, "hey, it was just a troll, what's the big deal, and who are they protesting against?" The message went beyond mere trolling, bordering on terrorism, and the students were a), finding a productive outlet for their hurt and outrage, b), letting the community know that the hatred and racism in the message did not have a place in their community and c, getting an excuse to leave school early. Nice work, Berkeley High students!


The President of the University of Missouri stepped down after criticism by students and the football team about how he had dealt with racist incidents on campus.

Slate has a timeline here: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/11/09/timeline_of_u_of_missouri_protests_and_president_resignation.html?wpisrc=obinsite

and some thoughts about how this could reverberate here:

It's heartening to see people, and especially young people taking a stand and standing up against racism. So there.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Steven Universe, or when progressives attack!

There was a case recently where someone who did fan art for Stephen Universe (which I guess is a cartoon, and I guess fan art is a thing? Who knew?) was harassed/bullied so much by people that she threatened suicide. What’s interesting about this is that the bullying was all done by around issues of identity politics. The artist was getting crap for being fat-shaming, or transphobic, or culturally appropriating asians, or white-washing. You can see examples in this article:

Here’s the thing - this was most likely a group of young people harassing another young person, and shouldn’t be taken as representative of how identity groups or social justice movements feel or behave writ large. But it does point to a road that progressives can go down if they aren’t careful. In fact, a lot of it is deriguer Tumblr-level social justice badgering. Tumblr being to progressive commenters what YouTube is to conservative ones.

I was skeptical of political correctness when I was in college in the 90s for some of the same reasons I am skeptical of it now. That doesn’t mean I am skeptical of minorities and marginalized groups deserving equal rights, respect, and a bigger voice in society. But the way it is often expressed, especially among college students and young people is often troubling to me, in a couple ways.

1. It becomes dogmatic, lazy thinking. It’s always worrying when you realize people are just parroting talking points they’ve heard someone else say. It can become dangerous when people adopt dogma that has come from someone else without fully understanding it, or perverting it in the process. This happens with religious dogma all the time (hence the people in the U.S. who are pro-gun and anti-poor are Conservative Christians, who follow a religious figure that explicitly ordered his followers to help the poor and forbid them from killing). 

2. It becomes about shaming other people and proving your righteousness by attacking others. This was how I experienced the PC movement in the 90s, for the large part. It was middle class white kids shaming other middle class white kids for using the wrong term to describe people, or for being impure in some other way. 

3. It very often is more cannibalistic and inward focused than focusing on actual racism and oppression. Related to number 2, when you spend most of your time attacking people for using the wrong term to describe a group, or for not sticking to the script, it’s hard to see how that moves the movement forward. There has been an obsession with language among progressive circles and in identity politics for the past thirty years, and it is hard to see what progress this has brought. It seems like we’d be better off doing less policing of language.

Anyways, those are my thoughts. In short, don’t be a dick to other people, and don’t wield your enlightenment and righteousness like a weapon. 

I Went to A Show: The Sword at Slims w/Kadaver and Them Witches

I've been to two shows in 2015, both metal shows. For comparison, in the 39 years of my life that preceded 2015, I went to 0 metal shows.

I'm not familiar with either The Sword, Germany's Kadaver, or the UK's Them Witches. I am familiar with Black Sabbath, however, and friends were going to it seemed like something to do. All three bands play some variation of psychedelic stoner metal: downtuned guitar, midtempo beats, and lots and lots of hair.

I'll make a confession - I was sick and tired and maybe a little drunk, so I don't totally remember the show 100%. It was mostly  a swirl of hair and guitars and hair and pounding drums. All three bands were enjoyable, but essentially playing different takes on the same song.

I got home at two am after a two-hour BART trek. Woke up at 6am feeling rough, slept til 8, and then was running around Northern California with my wife and kids all day. Parenting is not conducive to staying out until 2am carousing.

Friday, October 16, 2015

New Bermuda Review

New Bermuda

Deafheaven's 2013 album Sunbather managed to mix the intensity of black metal with shoegaze guitars and post-punk emotional heft. It earned them the love of Pitchfork, and the scorn of TRUE BLACK METAL fans. I hated it at first, but have grown to love it. What I liked best about the album wasn't the soft, atmospheric elements, but rather the way they used black metal elements (blast beats, screeched vocals, tremelo picking) to convey a range of non-evil emotions. Too much of black metal is obsessed with being dark and evil and scary, and it gets boring and annoying. Deafheaven used that sonic template to express feelings of longing, desperation, class angst, romantic yearning. 

So what do they do for their follow up, New Bermuda? They throw the shoegaze elements out the window for the most part, instead mixing elements of thrash into their mix. Some people have been let down by this, but to me it seems like one of the few real directions left to them. They could have made Sunbather Pt. 2, but they seemed to have said all they needed to on that album. They could have gone down the Wolves in the Thrown Room path and make something totally atmospheric and not metal at all. It's probably not a coincidence that in the wake of being accused of being false metal by purists, the group decided to show the haters just how metal they could be.

Not that the album doesn't have pretty parts. What makes Deafheaven, and New Bermuda, such a step above your average black metal album is the way they are able to incorporate a melodicism and prettiness into their songs, even with the screeched vocals and pounding drums. It's what makes their music so effective - they know when to be harsh, and that dynamics, changes in tempo, and some soft edges can make the music hit that much harder. 

In fact, I may like this album more than Sunbather because it is more consistent. There is less of the ambient filler, less interludes, less quiet parts. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Death by Icon Review

Death By Icon
Originally posted at RapReviews

Death By Icon are Chicago based MC Vic and MC/producer Ant, and L.A. based producer Dook. “HassaH,” their first proper full-length, is based on the concept of balance. This theme extends from the palindrome of the album title to the beats and lyrics. It’s a nice slab of indie rap that tries to balance polish with sincerity, indie rap with club rap.

“HassaH” sounds good. The production is several steps above the average self-released rap album. DBI combine folk, EDM, indie pop, and R&B with club rap. One song might have an acoustic guitar, while another might feature hissing hi-hats and snapping snares.

Things start off slow and sleepy. “Say Some” starts of with Ant freestyling for almost a minute before anything resembling a beat kicks in. When it does, it is a bombastic wash of synths with Pia Easley singing the hook. Based on that, I assumed I was in for some Chance the Rapper type weirdness, but things take a 180 turn on the second track, “Sunderday,” which is built around booming drums.

“Dafoe” is a mid-tempo track grounded in icy synths, while “Gusto” is pure club rap, with Vic and Ant spitting rapid-fire verses imaging where they’ll be in 10 years:

“We toured the globe 'round twenty times
Four albums out and went diamond
Producing for
Whoever want
Whatever want
And still grinding
Till Vic get bored
Then start to paint
Doing art exhibits on his island
While Dookie chill
Producing still
A couple joints off Blueprint 12
Revive careers like Blu Cantrell’s”

Occasionally the juxtaposition of indie elements with club elements is jarring. In general, I liked the more indie-oriented songs like “Namesake” more than the club-oriented tracks like “Trsssnme.” They were more unique sounding, and more emotionally complex. “Trsssnme” sounds like a million other songs on the radio, although its interesting to here that style of song without the lyrics about partying and material goods.

Lyrically, Vic and Ant rap about keeping it positive, girlfriend drama, the struggles of being an up-and-coming artist, and how they are about to blow up. They are both able rappers, often firing off rapid-fire rhymes full of intricate wordplay. Their lyrics are admirable for not falling into the familiar rap cliches, but there also wasn’t a lot that stood out to me. I listened to this album about fifteen times, and there weren’t that many lines that really stuck out.

“HassaH” doesn’t always succeed in balancing its disparate influences and styles, but it succeeds more often than not. Death By Icon have an interesting sound, and even if they didn’t always deliver on their promise, they’ve made an album worth checking out.

Tyler the Creator Review

Tyler the Creator
Cherry Bomb

Tyler the Creator was recently refused a visa to the UK for 3-5 years because of the homophobic slurs and sexual violence in lyrics from “Bastard” and “Goblin.” According to a letter the Home Office sent The Quietus, “Coming to the UK is a privilege, and we expect those who come here to respect our shared values. The Home Secretary has the power to exclude an individual if she considers that his or her presence in the UK is not conducive to the public good or if their exclusion is justified on public policy grounds.” This follows a few months after Tyler cancelled a tour in Australia after his lyrics and antics caused him visa issues, and a few years after New Zealand denied Tyler entry for similar reasons.

Tyler joins Louis Farrakhan, Pamela Geller, the Westboro Baptist church, and others who the UK has decided didn’t deserve to entry into the country due to their inflammatory views. It’s a little odd that Tyler ended up on the same list of religious and political figures famous for their anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-gay messages. Tyler isn’t a preacher or a politician. He’s not taking out bus ads denouncing Islam, picketing funerals holding up anti-gay signs, or blaming the Jews for 9/11 during sermons.  He’s a musician, albeit one with an offensive and nihilistic persona. 

It is troubling that an artist is being refused entry into a country based on the lyrics to some of their songs, and perplexing that Tyler the Creator is being picked out ahead of the multitude of artists who sing or rap about offensive things. Noisey pointed out that neo-Nazi band Satanic Warmaster were given a visa to play in the UK this year. Their songs include nods to the Final Solution and the Third Reich. Countless rappers who rap about killing people and committing crimes in their lyrics have been given visas. Did the Home Office allow them to come in because they understood that hip-hop lyrics aren’t meant to be taken at face value, or did they not care so long as the rappers kept it to black-on-black violence?

I won’t disagree that Tyler’s lyrics, especially from his first two albums, were often shockingly misogynistic and full of homophobic slurs. I’m not even going to try to defend them. I was in the minority of hip-hop fans that found his schtick reprehensible. However, using “faggot” and “bitch” as a slur doesn’t necessarily mean that Tyler is actually either homophobic or misogynistic. Syd the Kid, his label and tourmate, is one of the few openly gay women in hip-hop. Not that having gay/black/female friends inoculates you from being a bigot or acting in bigoted ways, but I guarantee that openly gay people are not a common feature in most rappers’ entourage. By the same token, both Tyler and his fellow OF crew have moved further and further away from their early shock rap leanings with each subsequent release. 

Maybe the Home Office should listen to “Cherry Bomb,” Tyler’s latest album. (Is it intentional irony or coincidence that his album shares a name with a song by the Runaways, the all-female, partially queer, proto-feminist 70s hard rock band that endured its own share of misogyny and rape?). Tyler continues on the trajectory he started on “Wolf,” moving away from pure nihilistic temper tantrums into lyrics that border on introspective and beats that border on soulful. Part of my issue with Tyler’s early work, lyrics aside, was how dreary it was. Being DARK and DISTURBING all the time doesn’t always make for great music. Tyler is still dark and disturbing on “Cherry Bomb,” but he is also maturing as an artist and a lyricist. 

Well, maturing to an extent. The rape talk and violent misogyny are gone, as they have been since “Wolf,” but Tyler still throws the word “faggot” around like a middle-schooler from the 1980s. Not because he seems to have any special animosity for gays; at this point I think he just enjoys pissing people off. Too bad he has to pick on a minority group that already gets all the shit it needs from society without Tyler piling on. What’s next, fat jokes? Making fun of developmentally disabled people? He even addresses this on “Buffalo,”

“Fuck them crackers up at Mountain Dew them n****s is racist
Cabbage was made, critic faggots was shook
So I told them that I'll exchange the word faggot with book
And all them books is pissed off and had their page in a bunch
Fucking attitude switched just like a book when it struts
But I'm a fraud I pray to God when the six triple book bashing
While me and my favorite author's lips tickle”

Tyler addresses his New Zealand ban on “Smuckers” with his typical sensitivity and understanding:

“Like a HIV victim, ain't nobody fucking with me
I got banned from New Zealand
Whitey called me a demon
And a terrorist, goddammit, I couldn't believe in it
Ban a kid from a country
I never fall, never timber
But you fucked up as a parent
Your child’s idol is a n***er
I clearly don't give a fuck, so you could run that shit back”

“Cherry Bomb” is often an ugly, messy album. The production is frequently pushed so much into the red that it ends up blown out and distorted. The title track sounds like it is being played at full volume on a pair of shitty speakers. “Pilot” sounds like the beat was recorded live on an old synthesizer through a blown out PA. Even the raunchy slow-jam “Blow My Load” is full of distortion. It’s an aesthetic that is sometimes overused, as is Tyler’s affected gruff vocal style. It screams, “I don’t give a shit” so hard that you realize how much he actually does care about his image, his sound, and his whole persona. Yet when it works it works. What Tyler does on songs like “Buffalo” and “Pilot” is take an average hip-hop song and blow it apart. He approaches music with the same no fucks given attitude that he approaches life, disregarding rules and accepted behavior. This sometimes ends up a hot mess, but often produces results.

The messiness is contrasted with other moments on the album that are downright pretty. There is a jazz and R&B influence on “Cherry Bomb.” “Fucking Young/Perfect” even has an appearance by R&B crooner Charlie Wilson, of the Gap Band fame. Of course Tyler is unable of playing it straight. “Fucking Young” is a sincere love song...about dating an underage girl. 

Your results may vary with “Cherry Bomb” depending on how much you like Tyler in general and how much you hate your  parents and the popular kids at school. I’ve never found his persona intrinsically interesting (possibly because I’m not his target demographic), and it feels a little like he is spinning his wheels for at least part of this album. Blah blah, you don’t like anyone, blah blah, fuck everyone, we get it. It’s the same thing he’s been saying for years. That said, he continues some of the growth that began on “Wolf,” in which he almost expresses real feelings, and uses beats that are almost musical. He’s basically hip-hop’s version of a punk rocker starting to awkwardly grow up, trying to figure out if he has something to say beyond a sneer and three chords. I keep paying attention to him because there’s some mileage to be had in his antisocial pose, and he occasionally makes it clear that he is a smarter, more complicated artist than his constantly upturned middle fingers and ubiquitous use of slurs indicate. Or to put it more succinctly, Tyler is kind of an asshole, and his songs mostly sound the same, but it’s a pretty good sound and it seems like he’s starting to grow a little and become less of an asshole. At the end of the day, I enjoy “Cherry Bomb,” both for it’s misanthropic noise and for its funkier and jazzier sides. 

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Oregon, Charleston, et. al. et. at.

As of 10/1/15, we have had 274 days and 294 mass shootings in the US

(Source one: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/10/01/2015-274-days-294-mass-shootings-hundreds-dead/)

Source two :http://shootingtracker.com/wiki/Mass_Shootings_in_2015#cite_note-279).

This is because we are cowards. We are cowards because we believe that we are safer armed. We are cowards because we believe that our feelings about owning guns are more important than the feelings of those who have lost family members to gun-related murder or suicide We are cowards because we fight to be able to open carry so we can feel safe. We are cowards because we do not have the political willpower to pass meaningful laws that might actually help tide the flow of blood. We are cowards because we believe we are powerless to do anything about it. We are cowards.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Taylor and Ryan Adams

There's been a bunch of articles in the wake of Ryan Adam's cover album of Taylor Swift's 1989 about male indie artists and female pop artists and sexism and how we take mopey music more seriously. The Mary Sue sums it up and adds their own perspective. 

Let me say a few things.

#1. Taylor Swift is a good songwriter. I'm not a fan of her production, I think her lyrics and her poor little girl next door schtick aren't my bag, but I don't think she's a crappy songwriter. I think most of the critical establishment, even those who dislike her music, will give her that.
#2. Fuck sad sack male indie rockers. I listened to ten seconds of the Ryan Adams album. It's some boring shit. Fuck Travis covering "Baby One More Time." Fuck white folk singers covering gangster rap songs. Fuck it all to hell.
#3. Pop music is often fluffy, mass-produced shite. Sometimes it is appealing mass-produced shite, in the same way that I'll get a fast food soda when I'm in the mood. Especially if they have that machine that let's you make all sorts of crazy coke zero combinations. I'm all about it. Doesn't mean it's good for you or that there aren't better things to put in your body tho.
#4. Fuck critics. Taylor may not get critical acclaim (spoiler: she gets critical acclaim), but she also sells gajillions of albums, has billions of views for her videos, and millions of fans. If the mean old critics are mad at her for not sounding like the National, she can console herself in her mountains and mountains of money. Other spoiler alert: Middle aged men and millennial hipsters are not Taylor's target demo. If they don't find her album as pleasing as Max Richter's 8-hour symphony, whatever.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What's wrong with pop music production

I love "Shake It Off." I think it is catchy, fun, and the lyrics are lightly empowering. I'm an unironic fan. The only problem: I don't really like Taylor Swift's version. It's almost an amazing song, but the pop production fucks it all up. It's a poster child for all that is wrong with pop music these days.

#1. Robo-vocals. Swift's voice has the metallic twinge of auto-tune. This is standard pop production - singer can't sing? Who cares, we'll fix it in post-production! The problem is it creates an uncanny valley effect where it is oddly inhuman. It lacks the warmth of an actual, unadulterated voice. It's a little like how women will get implants and plastic surgery to look like some idealized version of femininity, when in fact they just end up looking like someone who has had plastic surgery.

#2. Too much is never enough. What sustains the song in the beginning is its relative simplicity. It's mostly a beat with robo-Taylor singing over it. But then they gotta add all sorts of shit to it - can we get some high notes? What about a rap in the middle?

#3. It's too perfect. This relates to #1, but it sounds too clean, too perfect. Real life isn't like that. Real life has pimples and imperfections and cracks. And these are good things. This is like a supermarket apple, waxed to an artificial shine until it is flavorless.

Compare it to the Screaming Female's cover:

Like all things mass-produced, the Taylor Swift version loses a lot of its heart and soul in the over-production. It's like a Chef Boyardee of music. AKA not my thing.

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