Some Friendly Advice

National Novel Writing Month is November, so everyone sharpen your pencils and prepare for a thirty-day sprint, at the end of which you might have something that, if you squint, could be a pretty good story if you were able to spend more time on it, but you couldn’t because the whole point is to finish it in the thirty days allotted1.

I do think that the best thing about everyone being able to write and distribute their novel is that there’s a whole lot more out there to try to read. Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed (surveys and sales figures tell me you haven’t), but literature is in a bit of a state2, in that everyone’s writing the same goddamn book. Oh, I don’t mean that in the Willa Cather sense, I mean it’s the same. goddamn. book. Sometimes it’s the story of driftless ennui and the true meaning of emotion set in space, or at a university, or against the backdrop of some Eastern European country’s civil war, or at a university, or among the jet-setting upper class, or among the impoverished lower class, or with zombies, or at a university. My point is: 80% of the dumb nonsense that gets published as fiction – literary or otherwise – is generally less worthwhile than just watching fucking Magnolia again. There’s no stakes, nobody loses anything, nobody gains anything, and, as the story inevitably pulls to a close on some scene of two people who have learned a lesson about themselves doing something incongruous, the only thing we, the reader have gained is another baby step toward death and another fucking story to throw on the pile in which nothing is ventured, and nothing gained.

But there is a way through! I’m by no means a professional, but I am always right, and so here is some advice, from me, the person who reads all this crap, to you.

There is nothing less interesting than someone else’s sex life.

Take something away from your characters – no matter how real they are to you, they’ll never be real to us unless we care about something that happens to them.

A university is not a good place to set your novel.

Write what you know” is not to be taken that literally.

We have more than enough stories that consist of nothing more than Americans who get married to high-society people in foreign countries and then have a problem. We have more than enough stories that consist of nothing more than high-society people in America who are married to immigrants and then have a problem. We have way more than enough stories where “character development” includes “married to an ethnic or religious minority.” Your characters are free, obviously, to marry who they want, but holy jesus don’t make the story about the end of their marriage because of cultural difficulties unless you’re actually saying something about them.

Minorities are not props. Poor people are not props. Rich people are not props. People are not props. Stop using people as props.

There is nothing less interesting than someone else’s sex life.

Setting does not take the place of story.

Emotional turmoil does not take the place of character.

A case of the sads does not count as loss. If your story isn’t about loss, it should be funny. We do not have the relationship with your characters that you do, so bringing them to the edge of peril and then bringing them back is like having to explain the joke.

It’s called “backstory” for a reason.

There is nothing less interesting than someone else’s sex life.

If you aren’t good at description, describe your friends to someone until they know who you’re talking about, then give the reader half that much information. If you’re good at description, remember that a scene is not the same as a story.

You probably are not good at description.

Rape is not character development. Dead parents are not character development3. Getting dumped is not character development. Character development is the way the character reacts, not the things that happen.

If you can’t answer, coherently, the question “what happens in your story” you have not written a story.

For the love of god, hurt your characters. Kill the kid. Kill the dog. Kill the spouse. Kill something. Except for the car. There are no good stories about a car that’s broken down.

If your characters meet over the course of the story, they should do so in a way in which you, yourself have actually met someone. I know that this may make it seem like it’s a good idea to set your story at a university. It isn’t.

If you’ve only ever seen one writer do something successfully, you probably can’t do it.

There. Is. Nothing. Less. Interesting. Than. Someone. Else’s. Sex. Life.

There is nothing wrong with writing something funny.

Literary” is a genre just like anything else. This goes both ways.

The less information you give people, the less you run the risk of getting caught making shit up.

Write what you know” is still the best advice.

Well, it’s the best piece of advice that isn’t “don’t set your story at a university.”

Or “there is nothing less interesting than someone else’s sex life”

1 – really the best gift of National Novel Writing month is the lesson “just because it’s long enough doesn’t mean it’s good enough.” Rewrite, people.

2 – I’m not saying it’s worse. People have disagreed with the direction, focus, popularity, reasons for popularity, binding, typesetting practices, reading habits, purchasing habits, and headware choices of other readers or non-readers or less-readers since the dawn of the novel. I’m sure storytellers from Skald to Shibaibanasi, from Orators to Olupitan have had complaints about the agency of the characters and the lack of resonance, but at least they didn’t have a professional critical structure set up to give it to them.

3 – unless Batman is the main character of your story.

Lou Reed

“Music’s Never Loud Enough. You should stick your head in a speaker. Louder, louder, louder. Do it, Frankie, do it. Oh, how. Oh, do it. Do it.”

So generally I reserve the obituaries in this space for people that meant something to me, personally. And it’s fair to say that Lou Reed did: the Velvet Underground’s albums are the rare beast that are basically as good as everyone says they are1, for example, and he wrote a dozen or so songs that haven’t ever really left my rotation, which is as many as just about anyone whose name doesn’t end in “-sterberg”2. Upon thinking of writing this, my initial thought was that I didn’t have anything in particular to say about it. But then the Clarence of my subconscious took me through the Bedford Falls of my record collection and showed me that Lou “George Bailey” Reed was actually a giant presence the whole time.

Often is Brian Eno’s observation that very few people bought the Velvet Underground’s first record, but everyone that did formed a band3, quoted in the wake of Lou Reed’s death. That’s certainly not true anymore, but it’s probably fair to say that Lou himself has had more of an impact on experimental music than literally anyone else – he was making process music out of feedback and looping a full five years before Masami Akita gave up on playing death metal4 to do the same thing, he was in a band that would “jam” by extending a single chord and letting the lead instrumentalist (in VU’s case, a viola player) drone over the top before the guys in Sun City Girls were even born. He made records out of existing poems5. He would rewrite and retool his songs live like a folksinger, only he was the frontman of a rock band – his second-best-selling solo album Rock and Roll Animal, is a proto-metal retelling of the songs of the Velvet Underground, because what the world needed is several minutes of noodly guitar before the actual song part of “Sweet Jane.” He was a process-obsessed gearhead, retuning, rewiring and rebuilding guitars to make them sound less like guitars before other people generally even though about it.

Lou Reed was also an actual paid-in-an-office pop-music songwriter6 for a period of time, which led to his biggest contribution to rock music, which was the ability to take the formerly-compositional elements of the Cage/Stockhausen set that the Velvet Underground had emerged from and use them as parts of songs. This is the part that often gets cited: without it there’s no Jonathan Richman or The Jesus and Mary Chain or Sonic Youth or the Pixies or Mission of Burma or etc. etc. etc. Jonathan Richman, notably, was so impressed by the songs themselves that he stalked the Velvet Underground and used to read his poetry to them backstage (and also kifing “Sister Ray” entirely for “Roadrunner,” which is no bad thing at all).

Anyway, all of that is to say: the death of Lou Reed basically serves as a testament to the depersonalizing nature of someone becoming famous in a very specific way. See, nobody likes the books they read for homework unless they’re somehow good enough to get through. The Velvet Underground, generally, was (although their post-John Cale albums are…less inspiring). Lou Reed’s solo work, on the other hand, was generally hard to keep up with: people like the hyped-up Rock and Roll Animal, and the David-Bowie-graced Transformer, because it’s easy to like the poppiest VU songs and David Bowie. Metal Machine Music is generally regarded as something one step above a joke7, but is, on the face of it, such an oddball proposition (An album made entirely of feedback loops! Such things they have today!) that the fact that there’s an (admitttedly-not-at-all-well-known) genre of music made in the same way would be all but impossible to believe. And then…people don’t really know Lou Reed’s albums.

Put on your gallery hats, then, and think about an artist who came from a songwriting factory to perform as the backdrop for films with the association of a visual artist, who they then broke ties with to make two relatively-normal rock records, who then branched off on his own to have a bona-fide hit (“Take a Walk on the Wild Side”), and a couple of well-selling records after that (Berlin and Sally Can’t Dance), and then revisiting the work of the band that launched him with an entirely different band and an entirely different sound. He then made a record of feedback loops, followed by a couple of records as a folk singer, and then chased being a poet for awhile. He would continue to follow a twisty, oddball muse for a few decades, making records that vacillated between what was essentially spoken word over a musical backdrop, and more-or-less rock records. He would work with David Bowie again, he would work make records with John Cale again, he would make a pretty good record with John Zorn and Laurie “his wife” Anderson. He would make a record with Metallica in which he was the table.

Any one aspect of his life’s work would’ve meant a fairly-fulfilling career for anyone. And he didn’t seem to ever be bothered by it. Certainly no one wants the things they love to be obscure – I hope for every band that I love to become as rich and successful as they’d like to be, and there’s nothing as disheartening than a half-empty show or a stack of unsold records when the band means a lot to you. But the problem with regarding Lou Reed is how much of the press surrounding him is still just left over from his heyday as a famous person. People who are baffled by the idea that someone wouldn’t just keep plowing the same furrow for their entire lives, that even if it didn’t work, maybe collaborating with a heavy metal band when you’re 69 and not meeting them halfway was the sort of thing that made sense contextually. That a double-album made of feedback wasn’t actually a publicity joke, but a bomb that you’re throwing at the people who insist on coming to your shows just to hear “Sweet Jane,” and at the same time an honest exploration of what the non-musical elements of the music you make entail in and of themselves. That maybe someone that started a band that was as influential as can be would continue trying new things with himself, his forms and his music. And, more than anything else, he legitimately never once seemed to care how many people liked what he was doing. Nevertheless, it’s still hard not to wonder if maybe it would’ve been easier to appreciate him if there weren’t a body of people talking about his work that weren’t interested in it as such, but rather its similarity to the other parts of it that they were interested in.

Lou Reed was mean to the press, he was mean to his fans, and he was, by all accounts, mean to the people he worked with. He spent his entire career – which is actually, really, three different careers – doing exactly what he wanted to do, and not seeming to have much time for what people actually thought about it. And isn’t that exactly the sort of artist we need? All of my favorite artists are people who aren’t making the art for me. They’re making it, and it’s up to me to take what I would like to out of it. And so we come back to Metal Machine Music, a record that he may not even had any interest in the finished product of, but which is, actually, better than Transformer and Rock and Roll Animal put together. Decrying as “just noise” is ignoring entirely that it’s just noise. Listening to it is discovering that, even without them being played, there are parts. Movements. Scenes. “Perfect Day” may be a song moving enough to mentioned in every eulogy, and it is, but it’s Lou Reed moving you. Metal Machine Music is Lou Reed giving you the means to move yourself, and in so doing, launched an entire set of musicians (including myself) who are interested less in telling the listener something and more interested in letting the listener tell themselves something through the medium of constructed sound.

And maybe that’s not for everyone, and that’s fine. Maybe you need “Waiting for My Man” or “Sister Ray” to pound you into submission, or you want to dance to “Sweet Jane” or cry at “Caroline Says” or try to decipher “Murder Mystery” or sing along with the colored girls on “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”. There was probably a Lou Reed out there for you, and, although he might have scowled at you for finding it, you would’ve already made it yours anyway, so it wouldn’t matter.

And that’s a gift.

 So do him a favor, do me a favor, do yourself a favor, and borrow somebody’s copy of White Light/White Heat and whatever else you can get your hands on (everybody knows somebody who has a copy of Transformer, but I really have to say Berlin is the good stuff – “Carolin Says,” “The Kids,” “Men of Good Fortune”). But maybe put on Metal Machine Music and don’t think about how strange it is that someone made an album out of the parts that people generally specifically ask be not included on their album, and just let it go.

1 – if it’s at all possible, White Light/White Heat is actually better, because people like to pretend “The Gift” isn’t awesome.
2 – that’s Paul Westerberg and James “Iggy Pop” Osterberg, for those of you playing along at home.
3 – I would like to say now: not everyone has heard Brian Eno’s quote, but everyone that did went on to be a record critic
4 – funnily enough, in the liner notes to Metal Machine Music, he claims that, before heavy metal even existed, he carried it out to its logical end, which seemed silly for several decades until the kids started buying Merzbow records, going to Prurient shows, and figuring out reasons to justify trying to like Burzum.
5 – actually, John Cale did this as well.
6 – where his biggest “hit” was a song called “Do the Ostrich,” which leads to my two favorite things: that the song was a parody of popular dance songs, presaging “Do the Oz,” “The Crusher and, most importantly, “Contort Yourself,” as songs about fake dances complete with fake instructions, and also that he turned every string on his guitar to the same note (over three octaves), which he called “Ostrich Guitar,” and which made it basically impossible to play anything but a droning, clanging sequence. It was this that caught John Cale’s attention, actually.
7 – this opinion is helped in no small part by Lou Reed treating it as one step above a joke

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2014

It’s not technically an awards show, but it is an award after a fashion, and it all gets enshrined right up the road from the ONAT East compound, so let’s talk about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees! Because I need more things over which to shower my disapproval!

First, though, let’s establish some premise, here. The name of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a damnable lie – a rough survey shows about half of the acts in there are actuall “rock” acts, but that’s fine. It’s all sort of arbitrary anyway. The building stands as sort of the last bastion of the old-guard style of music criticism – the one that says that rock music is all the music that’s good, and that all the music that’s good is rock music. And I’m not here to bury that, either (it probably couldn’t be said by any but the most charitable that I’m here to praise it, however). And so questions of whether or not these bands belong in the rock and roll hall of fame are shaped not by the bands’ contributions to rock and roll itself, but rather by their relationship to the other acts in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

With that taken care of, ONWARD TO THE DISAPPROVAL!

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
Second-time nominees1, and probably the only band to ever be nominated named after their harmonica player. I mean, I guess he’s also the singer. Wikipedia says he was trained on the flute! He really could’ve Ron Burgundy’d that up. Anyway. I don’t think I knew a Paul Butterfield Blues Band song before doing this article. I still don’t really know any, but at least now I’ve heard a couple, which is nice.

THE VERDICT: I suppose if they get in, they can join the rank and file of “bands that were kind of a big deal in the late sixties” that occupy a huge whack of the inductees, and I’m sure there’s some old people out there who will be more than willing to tell me how important a white blues-singing harmonica player was to the world of music, but as it stands, I’m going to go with “not worthy.”

This is their eighth go-round here2. Is there a limit to how many times an act can be nominated? Are Chic doomed to be the Susan Lucci of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? What’s interesting, to me, is that while Chic are clearly not a rock band, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has no trouble including dance music – including disco, formerly rock’s great big boogeyman – but are still leaving out the rock-band-iest of dance bands. Apparently Donna Summer was just more important to Rock and Roll3.

THE VERDICT: I actually really do not understand why they haven’t been inducted in any of their prior seven nominations. I get the first-year thing, but seriously? Worthy.

Deep Purple
Ian Gillan’s second-best band4, Ritchie Blackmore’s third-best band, Jon Lord’s best band, and Ian Paice’s only band5, Deep Purple are probably the strongest argument for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame being allowed to nominate single songs instead of entire acts. Because there’s no way that a band that could ever include David Coverdale should be in the anything Hall of Fame, but there’s no arguing that “Highway Star” and, ok, fine,  “Smoke on the Water” should probably be enshrined somewhere.

THE VERDICT: Not actually worthy

Peter Gabriel
Genesis is already in, which makes this more difficult for me, because I know so much more about The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Selling England by the Pound than I do about Peter Gabriel’s albums6. He and Phil Collins were in Genesis together, of course, which means that at many points, there had to have been stretches of time where Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel did things like fold socks together while on tour. That’s fun to picture. Anyway. Peter Gabriel is, like Paul Butterfield, a trained flautist. The difference here being that Peter Gabriel actually used his talents for good.

THE VERDICT: I mean, he might as well be worthy.

Hall and Oates
It would be funny, cosmically speaking, if Hall and Oates got in before Chic, and it would prove that, whatever else was going on in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, ain’t none of it that makes any sense.

Only nominated once before, and it was several years ago! KISS are my go-to example of a band that, whatever appeal they may have had, is basically grounded in their original era. There were lots of reasons to like KISS in the seventies; they toured constantly and in cities that most rock bands didn’t bother with, and put a lot of their effort into making their live show as spectacular as possible. There are almost no reasons to like them in 2013.

THE VERDICT: Worthy, not only for their handful of pretty-good songs and their admittedly-impressive stage work, but also for basically embodying the spirit of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: rock and roll is great provided you can use it to make a bunch of money.

LL Cool J
Exhibit B in the “acts that were only good if you were in their target audience when they happened” category, LL Cool J made a couple of pretty-good-for-the-time records in the eighties. LL Cool J is on his third nomination, which is also puzzling – he seems, to me, to be exactly the sort of hip-hop act that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame likes to get behind. Maybe they’re making some sort of political point by granting this year’s biannual token hip-hop nod to NWA.

THE VERDICT: Not worthy. I don’t care about his radio, I don’t care about who needs love, and I don’t care what his momma said. Furthermore, I’m more than happy to call it a comeback.

The Meters
I did not realize that none of the brothers Neville were in the Rock and Roll HAll of Fame. Laura Fucking Nyro is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but not the Neville Brothers, nor Aaron Neville himself, nor, most tragically, The Meters. Parliament-Funkadelic and James Brown made it in. Public Enemy made it in, and Terminator X was basically the king of the Meters sample7. There is simply no reason to keep the Meters out.

THE VERDICT: More than worthy. Beyond worthy.

Boy, they’re really allowing this 25 years thing to include a single? The A-Side of which is actually a cover? I guess it’s important to get Nirvana in there as soon as possible. Which is, y’know, fair.

THE VERDICT: Of course they’re worthy.

This is probably some kind of linchpin for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To this point, they’ve inducted 80s party-rap types – you know, the kind old white dudes like – but haven’t made any real inroads to being inclusive of hip-hop in toto. NWA would mark the fork in that road: inducting NWA is, in a lot of ways, officially inducting hip hop, and not just the easiest-to-swallow outliers (well, and Public Enemy, but they’re kind of a horse of a different color). Of course, there is so little internal logic to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that I would imagine it won’t end up mattering, but I’m pretending like it’s all logical for the sake of this paragraph.

THE VERDICT: At the end of the day, while it’s true that Straight Outta Compton was hella influential, and there’s almost nothing to impeach about Ice Cube at the beginning of his career, nor about Dr. Dre at any real stage of his career, the actual recorded output of NWA is kind of a dated, silly mess. I mean, I get that a lot of people listened to and enjoyed it, but how much of that was ever intrinsic to the music, as opposed to just their ability to be there? Not worthy.

The Replacements
On the one hand, they really were the finest of rock bands, and Paul Westerberg really probably my favorite songwriter on the planet. On the other hand, there’s something sort of off-message about them getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On the other other hand, they unquestionably belong there. On the other other other hand, they in no way belong there.

THE VERDICT: Maybe they can just refuse their induction, like John Lydon did. Not that I’m one to encourage people to generally do things like John Lydon does.

Linda Ronstadt
This is even more surprising to me than KISS, actually. Laura Fucking Nyro got in before Linda Ronstadt? What the hell is this all about? Anyway, this is her first time even being nominated, which is just bananas. I’m no major fan of her work or anything, but I’ve been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and for all of its good points and charms – which do exist, I actually quite like it as a museum – the stubborn worship at the altar of the Seventies California Thing (The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac) is not one of them. Since Linda Ronstadt is right there in that self-same SCT, what is she doing not getting nominated until 2013? Are they leaving her out intentionally to save face or something?

THE VERDICT: Probably not actually worthy, although it’s surprising that she isn’t in anyway.

Cat Stevens
Oh good grief.

THE VERDICT: Go to hell, George.

Link Wray
People that like Link Wray love him. I am not necessarily one of those people, but I do like “Rumble.” He’s probably another pretty good argument for there being single songs inducted. But really. The Tornadoes aren’t inducted. The Surfaris aren’t inducted.

THE VERDICT: Not worthy, this time seemingly under the rules of the R&RHOF itself.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s relationship to prog rock is like the rest of America’s relationship to prog rock: inconsistent, messy, and nonsensical. Yes are occupying, for prog, much the same place that NWA are for hip-hop: they’re the point at which you’re going for the genre, rather than its outliers8. Nevertheless, they’re running out of pre-rock-and-roll R&B singers, they’re already expanding their wide array of beer-band-rocker-types into the Replacements, and maybe they should embrace the fact that a huge portion of their audience is also prog’s audience.

THE VERDICT: Worthy, and I’ll actually count myself a fan if they play “Roundabout” at the induction ceremony.

The Zombies
Psychedelia, on the other hand, has so much credibility with these people that it seems like there’s simply no keeping any of them out. I would expect The Zombies – the last of the great English psych bands to be inducted – to get snapped up in this, their first year of nomination. Bonus points for them still putting out records and sounding great.


1 The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t have the Baseball Hall of Fame’s problem with inducting first-time nominees, but it still doesn’t do it that often. I suppose it’s so the idea of being a “first-timer” in terms of induction can be a special thing.
2 What I think is weird is that they haven’t been nominated each year for the last eight years, but rather that they occasionally take a year off from being nominated for reasons that make sense only to the people at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
3 also not inducted: Giorgio Moroder, which strikes me as the sort of thing you’d do if you were the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They have a special category for producers which does not include Giorgio Moroder. That’s insanity.
4 I’m counting the band from Jesus Christ Superstar, here.
5 Roger Glover is the member I didn’t name. His Wikipedia page says he wrote the guitar riff for “Maybe I’m a Leo,” which is probably the most depressing thing I’ll read on Wikipedia today. Oh, and founding members Rod Evans and Nick Simper. Rod Evans is actually the guy that sang on “Hush,” and Nick Simper was the bass player that didn’t write the guitar riff for “Maybe I’m a Leo.”
6 Which include Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel and Peter Gabriel.
7 “Just Kissed My Baby” in particular figures pretty heavily in their early work.
8 with Genesis as Run DMC, Rush as Grandmaster Flash and Pink Floyd as Public Enemy

Who the Fuck Listens to This – M. Doughty – Circles, Super Bon Bon, etc. etc.

Circles, Super Bon Bon etc.
In theory, Kickstarter is a pretty great thing. You have an idea, and you know how to execute it, but you don’t have the money, so you connect with people who do. It’s venture capitalism in the microcosm – creation for donation is the sort of thing that tends to drive the more successful parts of the internet1, and certainly some nifty things have come out of it.

Eventually, of course, the thought occurred to someone that if these little nobody people can get their fancy pens or side-scrolling video games produced, then I, as a Big Important Totally Cool Human, can mobilize my pre-existing fanbase and get them to fund stuff. That is, as far as I’m concerned, also fine2. Basically what I’m saying here is: there are many bad ideas through and associated with Kickstarter but, as far as I’m concerned, Kickstarter itself isn’t one of them. But using Kickstarter to record an album of songs you wrote in the nineties with your then-pretty-cool band is dubious at best, and, when you’re noteworthy shithead M. Doughty, it actually results in some pretty terrible nonsense.

And make no mistake: this is definitely nonsense, and it is definitely dumb. For the last decade and a half, M. Doughty has tried to occupy two positions: that he was the only talented member of Soul Coughing, and that he was forever stymied by the other members of Soul Coughing, so what you’re hearing is the Soul Coughing that shouldn’t have been. These aren’t as contradictory as they might seem: he’s essentially saying that he, the only talented member of the band, was not allowed to be talented in the studio because of his terrible, hacky band members who didn’t want to do anything. Oh, also, he did a lot of drugs, a subject about which he is pretty goddamned vocal3. Nevertheless, he’s managed to carve himself out quite a solo career in a chummy, strummy sort of feel-good sub-Elvis Costello sort of way4. And across those solo records – four of originals, two covers records counting this one, a couple of live records and a few EPs, pretty easily outstripping Soul Coughing’s relatively-meager recorded output – he has always had to promote and play as “the former singer of Soul Coughing,” whether he meant to or not. And, again, I feel for him. If a plumber decides to become an electrician, they don’t have to contract their electrical services as “former plumber.” And all of that would be fair to note, except that he also, y’know, keeps going on about how terrible his band was.

And so, in the interest of doing this, let’s talk about that band. I am not what you’d call a huge Soul Coughing fan. I am what you would generally call an extremely casual Soul Coughing fan. Nevertheless, I know enough to know that, right off the top, it’s Mike Doughty’s considerable skills as a frontman that get one in the door. As the vocalist for Soul Coughing, he’s elastic, technically gifted, and perfectly willing to take risks. Their upright bass player does a pretty good job playing the upright bass, and I don’t know enough to say more about it. The fantastically-named Yuval Gubay is a pretty great drummer who seemed willing to play near the outside edge of his ability5, and the band’s super-compelling secret weapon was their samplerist/keyboard player Mike Di Gli Antoni, who played with the art-fried-jazz slam-poetry nature of the band by free-associating, or just generally weirding things up, on his instrument. The point here being: Soul Coughing was pretty clearly a band.

So, twenty years on, Mike Doughty is “correcting” the mistakes he made as a younger man, and has recorded some hired guns “playing” Soul Coughing songs, with the insistence that this was his true vision the whole time. And that’s where I come in.

By setting up the contents of Circles, Super Bon Bon No Wait the Record’s Title is Just Its Track List? That’s Fucking Ridiculous Ow My Balls as the ultimate, “correct” edition, Mike Doughty is, first and foremost, telling anyone that they like the band whose name and records, directly or indirectly, pay his bills (which seems, at the very least to be a poorly-caluclated solution for someone whose naked, open, undenied careerism has been a hallmark of his work to date, and so wouldn’t want to offend a sizable chunk of his customer base) two things: first, to the ones that stuck by him, that they are wrong, and that they are now obligated to like his “pure” take on his old material more than the material as it was originally conceived, and to anyone that would, theoretically, take this re-recording as a way to step into his solo material from the shadows of Soul Coughing fandom he is saying “this is literally as good as my creative vision gets.”

Right from the inception of the kickstarter, the album appeared as nothing so much as an opportunity to watch someone tip over under the weight of his own ego and fall on his face. The problem with putting your money where your mouth is is that your money has to be pretty good, and frankly Mike Doughty’s money might as well be Zimbabwean dollars. It’s not necessarily that the record isn’t good for me to listen to: I probably wouldn’t have liked it very much anyway, given that I’m not a fan of his solo work and am only marginally a fan of Soul Coughing itself. It’s that I can’t imagine anyone that did listen to and enjoy Soul Coughing getting anywhere with this record.

Many of the things that were a part of the original lineup are literally reversed. This isn’t surprising: in his memoir he apparently can’t even bother to mention his ex-bandmates by name (I haven’t read it – I heard it first in a review of this very record, and then corroborated with a friend who had), which seems about right for someone who clearly thinks of a band as a series of interchangeable faces to stand behind him onstage. Far from being a useful structuring element, the bass is an anchor (when it’s present at all – several of the songs appear not to have any bass on them whatsoever), dragging at every other part of the song. The drums plod metronomically6, Mike Doughty plays that one guitar part for every song, and where the samples used to be interesting moments of texture and surprise they are now…indescribably dull. There just isn’t even a word for what whoever is in charge of that keyboard is doing. So what would the person that heard and responded to Soul Coughing be coming to this record for? Even Mike Doughty’s voice – which, it cannot be said enough, is, at its best, a pretty phenomenal instrument – sounds dull and flat.

So one of two things must be true: either Mike Doughty isn’t lying, and this is really how he meant these songs to sound in the first place, in which he has basically discredited an enormous chunk of the vital part of his career, or he was looking for a cash-grab by “revisiting” the songs that people are still asking him to play in the laziest way possible, while doing his best to further discredit the people that helped him make them. Either way, what he ended up with was a record that makes it seem like he had nothing to add to Soul Coughing, rather than vice versa.
So who the fuck would listen to this? Well, anyone that was misled by his rhetoric into contributing to the kickstarter probably listened to it once and probably won’t be back for his next record. I suppose if there really are people that want to listen to Soul Coughing provided it sounds like M. Doughty’s solo records….then this is for them. But even then: if that’s really what you want, why does it need to come through Soul Coughing songs?

I would like to posit that this is, after its own fashion, an attempt on the part of Mike Doughty to do what Def Leppard, Kid Rock and Suicidal Tendencies have done before him: to rerecord the only songs people ever want to pay money to license so that he can be the license-holder instead of the label. He’s never made bones about wanting to be famous and make money, and it seems like the only way some sense can be made out of this goofy, bone-headed decision. So taken as it presumably is – a commercial, instead of an actual, vital record – it’s still a terrible, atrocious idea, but at least it isn’t so goddamned baffling.
1Well, that and advertising, obviously.
2 I tried to avoid the Amanda Palmer thing as much as possible, but this is the biggest example of this happening, and in theory, I think it’s fine: I see no reason not to do it, necessarily. If you “need” a million dollars, though, don’t ask for a hundred thousand. One of the niftiest things about Jeph Jacques’ recent Deathmole kickstarter was how forthright he was about needing to use the money for the record itself, which is what the money was for. In short: it’s a great way to dabble in venture capitalism or project funding, but you have to then act like a goddamned businessperson about it.
3 I’m not after him for that. I mean, I get it. Kicking a major addiction is a big fucking deal, and I totally get why it becomes a part of your personality afterwards. If I put a lot of work into something that made me undoubtedly healthire and saner, it would probably be a large part of my self-image as well. Still and all,  I have never seen anything spoken, written or sung by him that didn’t in some way reference his former drug addiction, and I think it’s probably worth pointing out that, even as it’s perfectly understandable that it is a big part of his current self-image that he got clean, it would also be perfectly, entirely reasonable to write off his Soul Coughing years as a part of his life that he’s not proud of because of it, without denigrating the work of the other professionals who helped you achieve what you were able to achieve.
4 My experience with Mike Doughty’s actual solo output is even more limited than that of Soul Coughing: I’ve heard singles, I think he’s done a daytrotter session or two, and I saw him open for Low. I do know, however, that every song I’ve heard by him has sounded like every other song, which is pretty discouraging in terms of going out to listen to more.
5He actually does for Soul Coughing records something pretty similar to what Andy Stochansky was doing for Ani DiFranco’s string of great records in the nineties: providing something more of a framework to drive the band dynamically so it seems less the work of a poet and more like the work of a band.
6 The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Automatic was made by drug-addled egotists who hated the contributions of former members, and they, at that point, used a bass machine and a drum machine so they didn’t have to work with anyone else. Automatic is at least ten times the record that this batch of nonsense is. What I’m saying is: if you’re not going to have your musicians do something interesting there is literally no point, in 2013, of hiring musicians.  

The B.E.T. Awards 2013

Guys! The BET Awards! They’re happening again! And just like every other time an award is given, I am here to provide you a path through the darkness of having to decide whether to agree or disagree with the fine people at BET. Mostly disagree, probably1. Anyway, as always, here are the correct answers.

Best Hip-Hop Video

No matter how long it continues to happen, I will never stop laughing at the need to radio edit the song “Fucking Problems.” First off: it’s just called “Problems,” which sounds already like a song played by the opener of the second stage at a mid-nineties festival-style package tour, but in addition to that, in the radio edit of the song, he “loves bad……that’s my …….problem.” Which sounds like something a character in one of those European movies that’s shot all in soft focus and the trailer for which you’re constantly seeing in front of actually good movies. Anyway. Lots of things are like lots of other things. Kendrick Lamar has more fun with editing with “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” losing its vocative subject, which makes one wonder if the radio edit has the song still addressing MDMA – the “bitch” of the title – or if it’s rendered more stilted weirdness. B.O.B. can’t win an award until he agrees that he’s just “Bob,” Drake didn’t start from the bottom, and he won’t win an award for this song. Also, this category has our first appearance by J. Cole, who’s still not winning any awards, even if he does have Miguel around to help him this time.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: My love for “Fuckin’ Problems” is well-documented on this site, and I see no reason for it not to also win here.

Reese’s Perfect Combo Award
Hey! It’s “Fuckin Problems” again! And also “Power Trip” again! But the Lil Wayne collabo is “Pop That” and Drake’s is “Poetic Justice.” Oh, and for completeness’ sake: Wale is in this category, which means that J. Cole isn’t officially the least-deserving nominee.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: On the one hand, “Poetic Justice” is pretty awesome. On the other hand, there are few people I love more than Future when he’s got something right, and, in this case, [robot] HE WOKE UP IN A NEW BUGATTI [/robot], so I think “Bugatti” wins it.

Best Live Performer
I haven’t seen any of these people live, so I’m relying on television and YouTube to tell me who’s the actual winner. Jay-Z was upstaged by his brandy snifter earlier in the year, and that’s not a good way to start things off. J. Cole is not winning any awards. 2 Chainz is probably a lot of fun, but he kind of doesn’t have very many good songs. I bet Kendrick is a beast if you can get to see him somewhere small, where you can see him without a telescope. Shame that doesn’t happen.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kanye, whose ability to both set up effective staging and play to the cheap seats makes him the correct answer in pretty much a walk.

Lyricist of the Year
OK. I hate to stop the proceedings like this, but we need to have a talk, America. J. Cole has been nominated in every category to this point, and I ask you: where is the justice in that? The guy is no better a lyricist than he is a rapper, which is to say that he’s slightly better at being both than he is at being a cheerful little bumblebee. Get it together, people. Anyway. It’s Kendrick Lamar. Of course it’s Kendrick Lamar.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar. Of course.

Video Director of the Year
AKA the “holy shit, Hype Williams is still alive?!” award. It’s not ol’ Hype, but it’s good to see him there. Dre Films is the result of a pretty good idea on Rick Ross’ part, – for MMG to have their own music video director – but he’s not a very good music video director, apart from giving the acts associated with the MMG brand a uniform look. I would have been surprised Benny Boom was still around if I hadn’t been still getting over the shock of seeing Hype Williams. I have no idea what distinguishes the work of Director X from anyone else’s. A$AP Ferg is a pretty good rapper, I guess, but his videos are like his weaknesses as an mc: derivative and not as well-composed as they should be.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Mrs. Coach’s hair, which I hear is also expected to kill it in the cypher this year.

DJ of the Year
This category was introduced in 2007. In the years since, the only year it hasn’t been won by DJ Khaled2 was the year it was won by DJ AM. What I’m saying is: this category is a fucking travesty.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The dude that wears the Ronald Reagan mask on tour with Killer Mike. Or, alternately, the scary-ass undead-Diplo dude from Death Grips.

Producer of the Year
OK, I’m obviously being fucked with. Can you feel the rage boiling over? Because it’s boiling over. J. Cole is nominated in this fucking category again. In a just world, DJ Mustard would win this year – and should probably win for DJ as well – because Ratchet was fucking everywhere, and if we all have to talk about Miley Cyrus for twelve hours a fucking day, we can at least throw the dude a statue. I suppose the same logic would apply to Mike.Will MadeIt, but I hate his name too much to let him win, even if he is a pretty good producer for all that. Pharrell did better as a vocalist this year than a producer, and that’s sad, since “producer” is his actual job title. It’s pretty hard to argue with Hit-Boy, though.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Hit-Boy. Nobody really had a better year than Hit-Boy.

MVP of the Year
……ok. It’s. Not. J. Cole. It’s also not Jay-Z, as much as it pains me to say. He’s still managing to be the least-good part of any song he’s been on all year, and I’m saying that in a year that he actually released a record. Get it together, Sean. 2 Chainz has been a welcome presence on a bunch of great songs, but his bag of awesome guest-verses isn’t really hiding the fact that he’s not as great on his own tracks. I like Drake, but I don’t know why he’s here. But this is a foregone conclusion anyway.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar. Seriously, it’s Kendrick Lamar.

Track of the Year
Why wasn’t 40 Shebib nominated for producer of the year, actually? He’s got two appearances in this category: “Fucking Problems” and “Started From the Bottom,” and they’re huge songs. This category is actually remarkably strong once you force out the inevitable (seriously, at this point it has to count as inevitable, doesn’t it?) J. Cole nomination. “Bugatti” has Future doing so much with so little and “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” has Kendrick Lamar doing much more with much more.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: My head wants me to say “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” because it’s a great song by a great songwriter, and because the record it’s on has given a great deal of joy in the year or so that it’s been out3, but I LOVE FUCKING PROBLEMS THAT’S MY FUCKING PROBLEM.

Album of the Year
I’m trying as hard as I can to not take this J. Cole thing personally, but I will say: three of these albums (Power Trip, Magna Carta Holy Grail and The Gifted) are actually bad records. It’s good to see Nas nominated, although he’s unlikely to win, or even show up. This one, however, is also not really a surprise.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City

Rookie of the Year
A$AP Ferg will hopefully stay around to win the Hustler of the Year award in a couple of years, but for now, this isn’t his category. We’re probably still going to be talking about “All Gold Everything” in a decade, but I think the odds that we’ll remember Trinidad Jame$ for anything else are pretty slim. Rounding out the “People with Dollar Signs for Esses in Their Names” portion of the nominees is my beloved Joey Bada$$, who has a shot at this whole thing. Action Bronson could’ve won last year, but I haven’t liked much of what he’s done this year, and that sentence alone makes nominating him for a rookie award feel a little weird. Earl Sweatshirt may actually be a part of the hip-hop world full-time now, so it feels a little less weird in his case.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I’m going with Earl Sweatshirt, because 1) I liked Doris a whole lot and 2) he doesn’t have any dollar signs in his name, but that’s not to say that on another day I wouldn’t have picked Joey Bada$$. I’m fickle.

Hustler of the Year
This category is a little too nebulous for me4, but I am duty-bound to do the job I have set out to do, so here goes: don’t give Diddy awards, you’ll only encourage him, Jay-Z seems like the sort of person this category was invented for at present, I guess TI had a lot of hustle this year? Kind of? He was on “Blurred Lines,” so I guess this would be a way to get that song involved. Kanye West don’t do no press but he gets the most press, kid, and Kendrick Lamar is the odd man out by getting talked about for his music.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: While that last sentence sounded kind of snotty, I would like to say that it should be Kendrick Lamar, because in addition to guest verses on seemingly one out of every four hip hop songs, there’s something to be said for his verse on “Control,” which literally took over the dialogue within hip-hop for almost a month and made the end of 2013 a very different place than the beginning, and while that may not fall under the category of “hustle” in the strictest sense5, it captures the spirit of the sort of thing I think we’re meant to be rewarding here: affecting the culture of hip-hop more than its actual sound. I think. I guess. kind of. Fuck, it’s probably just going to go to Jay-Z anyway.

The Made-You-Look Award
Presented to the performer with the best hip-hop style! That’s kind of neat. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to say about it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kanye West. He’s snazzy.

Best Hip-Hop Online Site
This is a pretty good idea, and these are even some pretty good nominees6. I don’t always know the difference between WorldStarHipHop and GlobalGrind, and Complex is a bit of a stretch, but Rap Radar and Allhiphop are both pretty inarguably indespensible.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Allhiphop, I think. Although shouldn’t it be LiveMixtapes or DatPiff?

Best Club Banger
I don’t want to jinx it, but J. Cole hasn’t been nominated for anything in, like, five categories. I feel like the sun has come out after a storm. Anyway. I feel like this category is made for tracks like “Pop That” or “All Gold Everything.” Songs that there isn’t any reason to think of as anything other than a way to bop along for a few minutes. It’s not really for “Started From the Bottom,” but I get where they’re coming from. The problem with this category in 2013 is that two of the best “club bangers” in recent memory came out this year.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I think “Bugatti” over “Fuckin Problems,” because Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky are both tiny, and don’t have the arm space to carry home any more trophies7.

Best Mixtape
Don’t Be S.A.F.E. and Detroit are both bad. They do not win this award. The other three – Stalley’s Honest Cowboy, Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap and Travi$ Scott’s Owl Pharoah – are good enough to more than make up for it. Well, Stalley’s record is only really good enough to make up for itself. But Acid Rap and Owl Pharaoh are two of the best records of the year.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I think Acid Rap, but not by a very large margin.

Sweet 16
An award for “best featured verse” is such a grand idea I’m sad that more awards shows don’t have a “good parts” award8. Drake, Diddy and Wiz Khalifa are nominated for songs in which they don’t actually have the best parts, let alone the parts that are worth rewarding over “Fuckin Problems” or “Bugatti.” The problem with Future’s turn in “Bugatti” is that it’s basically just the chorus.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I think if my aim were to surprise you people more, this list would be a lie. The rightful winner is Kendrick Lamar for “Fuckin Problems”

Impact Track
I still think this is total fucking bullshit, and I think so doubly because of the nomination of Macklemore at all. The one thing that would allow for me to give awards to J. Cole is that if giving awards to J. Cole meant Macklemore got punched in the head9.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nobody wins this category ever, and I’m sad that “Black Skinhead” is only up in this one.

People’s Champ
God, it’s Macklemore again. I had prevented myself from thinking about him for a couple of months, there. I was happy. I spent the whole early part of this fiasco (“the J. Cole era”) worrying about the wrong thing. Of course, J. Cole is also nominated in this category, because God is a cruel lie told to children to teach the agony of losing joy and hope. Without those two travesties, it’s the same three songs (“Started From the Bottom,” “Fuckin Problems” and “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”) that have been nominated for everything else.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: “Started From the Bottom,” because I’m tired of having to choose between “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Fuckin Problems”

Well that does it again for the most confusing awards show of the year! Tune in next year when I still don’t know why it’s called “Sweet 16,” and my loathing of DJ Khaled is still overshadowed by the fact that the world wants me to think of J. Cole as anything other than a pest.

2 I’m sorry, I obviously mean DJ KHALED
3 it’s possible, as well, that the reason that I can’t get on the wagon for “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” is because there are five or six better songs on the album, which says more about the strength of the album than the lack thereof of this particular single, but still keeps it out of the serious running more than it maybe should.
4 and also is pretty transparently an excuse to give an award to someone who they want to be at the show, and they want credit for giving awards to, but who didn’t really do anything worth rewarding that year.
5 not that, as a reminder, I have any idea what “the strictest sense” of the definition for “hustle” would actually be
6 I guess The Passion of the Weiss couldn’t be included because it isn’t always a hip-hop blog. I understand, guys.
7 2 Chainz is nine feet tall, he’s got plenty of space, but I didn’t mention him for the joke. Shut up.
8 note to those of you that have been following from year to year: I still don’t know why it’s called “Sweet 16,” and I still find that baffling and infuriating.
9 oh no now I’m bullying! I should go appropriate the hell out of something and write a condescending verse about how hard it is for other people but not me to atone!

Februarymakeup turns 30: Another thing about Records, Part 4

2007 The Everybodyfields – Nothing is OK
On the one hand, it’s entirely possible that the content and emotional tenor of Everything is OK is the result of the band’s songwriters themselves breaking up. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter. Its title an answer to the question posed in one of its songs (the song itself is titled “Everything is OK”), Nothing is OK is a study in sadness. Loss, disappointment, the whole gamut of “this is a pretty terrible situation”-related emotions, really. And yet, at the end of the thing what you come out with is a singularly gorgeous record.

2008 Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

After a few years making records that sounded like conversations between synthesizers and effects pedals, Liz Harris took some of the post-production effects home and wrote some honest-to-jesus songs1, which she then buried in wash and echo because, y’know, this is still a Grouper record. Songs mentioning sleep and dreams flow along without much urgency, while still managing to create a huge amount of momentum. Combining psychedelic art music’s propensity for taking over its own surroundings with ambient music’s ability to wrap itself around any situation, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, more than any other record, sounds very much like the soundtrack to whatever it is that’s happening while you play it. Of course, it also makes everything seem like the hottest day of summer and that you need a nap. In the best way possible, I mean.

2009 Mono – Hymn to the Immortal Wind
If Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill is unobtrusive enough to make anything you do seem like it fits perfectly, Hymn to the Immortal Wind – which is no less cinematic in its workings – forces everything you do to feel like an epic of biblical proportions. Closest in instrumentation and approach to something more like Silver Mt. Zion than Tortoise, it’s still Mono that manages to seem the most like what I would call actual post-rock. Not “beyond” or “over” rock, but able to subsume rock music within what they were doing in a way that made it exactly the same kind of building block as the Japanese folk music and Euopean classical music2 that are clearly also providing a basis for the sounds that Mono is using to make huge, cathartic pieces. Plus, it’s always nice when a band without a lyricist or singer decides to make a concept record – you can read the short story in the liner notes, and then listen to the record, since there is apparently no way to make a concept record with lyrics that isn’t occasionally the most ridiculous thing ever put to tape.
HONORABLE MENTION: Merzbow’s amazing 13 Japanese Birds is actually 15 different albums released throughout 2009, and is immense in its scope and its accomplishment. But while I’ll make an exception for two-part companion records (SPOILER ALERT – see below), 15-part records seem a bit beyond what we’re doing here. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty staggering set of records. Go check it out.

2010 Das Racist – Shut Up, Dude/Sit Down, Man
It’s technically two mixtapes, not one, but they’re impossible to separate at this point, so they get one spot. It’s always impossible to tell how influential something may turn out to be, but it would be hard to believe that Das Racist won’t be remembered as a pretty big point. They weren’t really “about” anything – they were an excellent group who didn’t really stand for stuff, that weren’t really scene-based (well, not at first anyway. A scene would sort of form around them, like a pearl) or subgenre-based. If it was important that De La Soul came around to rap about things that weren’t the darkest parts of the world, and that Kanye West figured out how to make rap as personal as the navel-gazingest of folksingeres, then it was equally important that Das Racist figured out how to do none of those things. A year or so after their seemingly-jokey “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” Shut Up, Dude arrived to show that that was, in fact, not a joke. That was what they were doing. And they removed it from its novelty context3 and placed it within the idea of a rap group predicated on nothing in particular (carrying to its logical end the suggestion of Wale’s earliest mixtapes) except hip hop itself – they would prove themselves willing to work with El-P, with Mister Mothafucking eXquire, with Diplo, and they were, as much as anything, responsible for galvanizing the NYC alt-rap scene as it currently is. Sit Down, Man finished the story, providing the second half of what, really, is basically the meaningful part of their body of work. They made one studio record – Relax – after this, and the best songs from it were reworked versions of songs from the mixtapes, and then they broke up. But for two messy, largely-unfocused hours worth of songs, they were one of the most exciting acts in hip hop in ways that continue to be unpacked until now.
HONORABLE MENTION: LCD Soundsystem were, by contrast, a bunch of professionally-focused actual musicians who made well-crafted records that meant stuff. That’s not to say that This is Happening isn’t an amazing accomplishment – it capped off a similarly short-lived run of a great, unique band. It just wasn’t quite as good.

2011 Doomtree – No Kings
While POS is easily Doomtree’s most visible and most consistent member, (or maybe it’s Lazerbeak), Paper Tiger clearly the guy that keeps their sound grounded, and Dessa seems like their ethical rudder, Doomtree are, to use the cliche, considerably more than the sum of their parts. But while everyone’s contributions are important – “Bolt Cutter” and “Bangarang” sort of establishing the range of what’s going on, Doomtree’s secret weapon is its least-visible, the calm, slow-burning Cecil Otter. Responsible earlier in 2011 for the much-blogged-about Wugazi mash-up, in which Fugazi songs are combined with Wu-Tang Clan as a way to get back in touch with what brought Doomtree about, Cecil Otter also provides a great deal of the record’s heart, and it’s Cecil Otter who provides the record (and, to date, the band) with its masterpiece. Much as Millions Now Living Will Never Die is a record that exists to support “Djed,” so does No Kings come off like the record that was built around “Little Mercy,” the credit for which belongs almost entirely to Cecil Otter (there’s a verse by Dessa in the middle – and it’s actually her best verse in a walk). Delivering on the promise of each of its members’ solo careers, No Kings provided a handy reminder that sometimes it’s good to have music that invites you to break some legs. Then mend ‘em. And then take the casts off.

2012 Swans – The Seer
I know, I know. I don’t have a whole lot to say about it that I didn’t say ten months ago. It leaves Swans as the only band to have put out two records on this list, which I’m pretty ok with. Since No Kings was mentioned as a record organized around a song, I feel it’s worth mentioning here that, while the title track clearly provides the centerpiece of the record – and, really, any song that’s a full half hour long is going to seem like the major point of an album – it doesn’t really dominate the record like other linchpin-type songs would. Instead the whole album flows as though it was one long piece, with Michael Gira’s voice in and out of the mix, and other singers appearing to contribute elegies (Karen O. on “Song for a Warrior”), chanting (Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker on “Lunacy”), or a reminder that this is a band with a great deal of history, both musical and otherwise (Jarboe on “The Seer Returns” – which references its own status as a callback – and “A Piece of the Sky” – which also features fellow Michael Gira former-collaborators Akron/Family5). As such, it’s a perfectly excellent record to end this list with.

That’s it folks, I bid you adieu. Come back soon for more regularly-scheduled yelling! Thanks for sticking with me for this one. I know it got a bit long there.
1 Continuing on from earlier, this list could have had He Knows in the 2006 spot and Xiu Xiu’s Women As Lovers in 2008, and both records would occupy basically the same spot in their respective bands’ catalogs: the end result of their “early period” and the more pop-oriented “song period,” respectively. It’s also worth pointing out that that same year saw Xiu Xiu and Grouper make an album together, so I’m clearly not the only person to notice they have a similar arc.
2 I don’t know where or how to include the information that a couple of the string players – including Helen Money – were in fucking Poi Dog Pondering, of all things. The world is truly a strange and unknowable place.
3 well, sort of. They never really stopped being goofy and silly, they just stopped coming off like a less-energetic Lonely Island and emerged as actual rappers.

4 who, again, are neither from Akron nor a family.

Februarymakeup turns 30: Another thing about Records, Part 3

Ah the mystery of where the band name starts and the album title begins. I am not a lyrics guy. It is a well-joked-over aspect of my life that I never know the words to anything. So I suppose it’s worth noting that this is a record where the words are the most important part. Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star was a quiet sort of revolution: not positive, not violent, not even really sad, just descriptive, in lines and passages that make it seem like the easiest and most obvious thing in the world. On the one hand, it’s a shame that instead of making another record together1 they have become an actor and a guy who makes concept records complaining about being pigeonholed (without, it must be pointed out, actually changing anything about what he does). On the other hand, how would you follow that up?

Jason Molina seemed to be unique in inverse proportion to the number of people that were likely to be listening. I’ve already covered how his records became more and more by-the-numbers as he went on, but it’s almost taken to the point of parody with his best record, The Ghost. Not to be confused Ghost Tropic, the widely-released follow-up to Axxess & Ace, The Ghost was a limited-run tour-only record made by playing songs into a boombox, and thus stands as the most striking thing he’s ever done. And the most striking thing Jason Molina has ever done is just about some of the most striking work anyone has ever done. This record also probably deserves some sort of credit for being able to sustain the most dreadful, miserable tone (and I mean that in the way that it is full of both dread and misery – it’s a compliment) of any record I think I’ve ever heard.

I think at this point one of the assumptions it’s fair to make about me is that, while I, for the most part, enjoy music that challenges or redefines or reshapes the way I hear other things, I am also completely vulnerable to a sad fuckup who can’t even write ten great songs in a row. Ryan Adams’ relationship with country music itself tends to careen around like a drunk on a moped, but it’s hard not to see the move of following up his stint in the alt-country-establishment-approved Whiskeytown by hooking up with unimpeachably old-timey duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings2 to record a bunch of songs that, for better or for worse, could be looked at as ground zero for essentially every record he’d make since. And none of that is as interesting as the fact that “Come Pick Me Up,” “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and “Bartering Lines” are enough to qualify him as the equal of any other songwriter ever to wander around, and also that Ryan Adams is right: “Suedehead” is on Bona Drag, and is only on Viva Hate because it’s a single. I hope he got that five dollars.
HONORABLE MENTION: Basically the opposite of Heartbreaker, Outkast’s Stankonia is easily among the best hip-hop records ever made, if not, in fact, the actual best (that still is probably Illmatic). It’s also the last record they made as a record by an actual rapping duo. Sigh. Anyway, it’s not as good as Heartbreaker, but it’s still better than most other things.

I should probably point out that back at the 1997 entry I said it was pretty much the point where my favorite at the time merged with what I feel is the best record now. Because otherwise the last three are going to paint some weird portrait of me as a miserable, miserable bastard. Which is apparently what I am now. Actually, I’ve never considered listening to The Ghost and then Heartbreaker and then Things We Lost in the Fire, but I’d imagine it would actually be pretty comfoting – Things We Lost in the Fire, without any increased volume or aggression, is one of the most cathartic albums I’ve ever heard. It’s worth noting that if you can find the foreign version, which has “Don’t Carry it All” on it, the album becomes even moreso, but even ending on “In Metal” means that the record has a scouring effect.
HONORABLE MENTION: Spoon’s Girls Can Tell is the first great Spoon album, and also the clearest statement of intent. They’d pretty much work within that template the whole time, which is fine. On a different day, it could be in this spot instead of Things We Lost in the Fire, but it doesn’t have anything as good as “Sunflower” on it.

Albums are often praised as “growers” – they don’t seem to make much sense at first, and then as you spend a little more time with them, you learn how they work and they start to make more sense. Lambchop is a Woman is probably the groweriest of growers that ever grew, which can’t possibly have been intentional but also fits perfectly with Kurt Wagner’s sense of humor: the sad, minimalist, sparse album is the one that reveals itself slowly over time, in a way that his huge, big-band country albums never did. Even moreso than the fact that it took over a dozen people to make a record that sounds this small.

Which I suppose segues perfectly into the fact that it only took three people to make a record that sounds this huge. Recorded directly to tape in one take, Akuma No Uta is the second of Boris’ more-rockin’ records (their first three were pretty seriously drone-y doom metal), it’s also their most successful tempering of their rad-dude-riffability with their ability to create unearthly, completely impenetrable noise around it. It’s easily the biggest-sounding record ever to be made by three teeny-tiny people. It’s also instructive to see a band so relentlessly pursue new ways of making heady, cerebral music by means of record-collector-y reference (usually the purview of “tasteful” indie rock bands) and extreme volume (which tends to either be straight-up rock music or the power electronics/japanoise end of things, although it is worth pointing out that Boris’ records with Merzbow are still better than any of your favorite band’s records).

In 2004, Kanye West declared a nonspecific “we” to be at war with racism, at war with terrorism, and most of all, at war with ourselves. And thus it was that Jay-Z’s (and also Common’s) producer began his assent to the most polarizing, the most publicly visible, and the most fun to talk about figure in hip hop in just ten years. While it’s funny to go back and listen to it (especially since this is written in the wake of the summer of Yeezus) knowing where Ye, and hip hop in general, would go, it’s also apparent with this much distance just how singular was Kanye’s talent. Of course, I don’t know how I missed it: he kept telling me over and over (and over) again. Not as emotionally raw as 808s and Heartbreak or Yeezus, The College Dropout is still Kanye realizing that his path as a rapper was not even through his then-associate Common’s sermons (he didn’t have all the answers like Common seemed to) or through his off-and-on-mentor Jay Z’s impersonal reportage (he was too earnest to hold himself in that kind of remove), but by taking what he could from each and adding a pretty healthy dose of whatever it was he was going through at the time – in this case a car accident – and he could find his own path as an MC. He would never stop being a better producer than rapper3, or at least he hasn’t yet, but he figured out a way on The College Dropout for that not to matter so much.

At the end of the nineties, Sleater-Kinney made a pair of life-changing records, that didn’t make any major breaks with tradition or their own fandoms, but nevertheless synthesized it all into something that was quite unique4. And then, for the early part of last decade, they kind of pleasantly jogged from place to place. The Hot Rock (their best album) seemingly left them at the end of the line they’d started out travelling, and so they made a couple of poppier-seeming albums, and then delivered their final pitch, in which their former resistance to being really loud seemed to be lifted. It’s an album that deals almost entirely in volume and aggression (it’s worth noting that the single, and the song that either everyone tends to like the most or the least is “Modern Girl,” and it’s the only song that’s slow and pretty, and it sounds like “The Size of Our Love”’s boring cousin), and even ends in an extended guitar-solo-y, wank-y jam that is also a song about fucking. And yet, despite all of that against it, it’s also as exciting a song as they managed, and it left the listeners with the idea that the band could have done anything.

Xiu Xiu’s entire career has been a high point, and they probably (I didn’t officially keep track) had the most “second-best albums” of any given year of any band on the list. But The Air Force is pretty untoppable5, from it’s opening salvo (“Buzzsaw,” “Boy Soprano,” “Hello From Eau Claire”) that’s most band’s three best songs total wouldn’t beat, and all of which are  bested by “Save Me, Save Me” (well, except maybe “Boy Soprano.” There isn’t much that can do better than “Boy Soprano”). It takes a pretty pompous person to write about music, ultimately: Frank Zappa’s oft-quoted gripe that it was “like dancing about architecture” is more than a little true. So writing about music really has to be writing about yourself: you can’t hide behind a couple of hundred years of academia like you can with a book or a painting. All of which is to say: at a certain point talking about toy keyboards and vocal effects, about gender-swapping in lyrics or about the idea of using vulnerability as a weapon is a great way to dissect what makes something work. But unlike with, say, Tortoise or REM, talking about why Xiu Xiu works is an exercise almost independent for the fact of the band working. So click above, and if it doesn’t work for you give me a call and we’ll talk about sexual politics and the reversal of rock’s dynamics as a way of being aggressive.

1 actually, they meant to make a solo record each, but they liked the way they sounded together, so they put off making solo records and made the record together. Sometimes it seems that the reason there’s never a Black Star “reunion” is that Black Star, in and of itself, were never that tightly organized a relationship.
2 that sounds unduly hard on Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, which isn’t fair: I quite like them. I like their records a whole bunch. What I don’t like is the cult of authenticity that their fans often use them to represent. How much of that can be blamed on them would be an interesting thing to debate, but I’m not going to do that here.
3 and he would never be a better rapper than he was a master of dick jokes
4 I’ve never really noticed how much of what I like about Sleater-Kinney is basically the same as what I like about Boris. They also both have phenomenal drummers and no dedicated bass player – Takeshi has the double-necked guitar on which he generally abandons the bass for their noodlier bits, and Corin Tucker generally EQs all the high end out of her guitar
5 of course, so was La Foret and Life and Live, but you just read about The Woods, and Women as Lovers came out the same year as Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill