Can I Interest You In A 10th Anniversary Post?


I can’t pinpoint the exact date I started writing about music, but it was roughly a decade ago, so now seems like a pretty good time to look back and figure out what, if anything, I’ve accomplished. Picture it, Manhattan, 2004 – I was a young-ish music fan living in a studio apartment, and still buzzing from all the new music I’d been exposed to in recent years (Sigur Ros, The Strokes, White Stripes…etc.). So much so that I was convinced there were still other great bands out there I was missing out on, and dammit I wanted to do something about it. Writing about music would be a way to get access to a lot of new albums (for free!) and maybe even discover the next big thing. With that idea in mind I stumbled across Losing Today, a former print magazine now operating as a website with regularly updated content and a focus on shoegaze music – something I was very into at the time. There was a link for anyone interested in writing for the site and I reached out to see if I could make it happen. I sent what I can only imagine was a poorly written review of M83′s new album, Before The Dawn Heals Us, which I liked a lot at the time, but probably haven’t listened to in a few years. They told me they liked the review and that I could become a regular contributor. I was in. I was a music writer.

Truth be told, Losing Today was operated out of Italy and the people who ran it wrote in pretty choppy English on the rare occasions that we exchanged emails, so I’m not sure how much they understood what I wrote. But it didn’t matter. I was excited to dive in at the deep end and quickly set about the task of getting myself music to review. In what can only be described as an amateur’s display of over-enthusiasm, I picked up the latest copy of The Big Takeover (an indispensable rock magazine I haven’t missed an issue of since 1998) and proceeded to email the record company behind every album reviewed in that issue in an attempt to get on their mailing list for promos of new releases. There were hundreds of reviews in that magazine. Within days my mailbox was flooded…sometimes 10-15 albums a day; definitely more than a sane person could ever review. I tried to hit as many as I could, but I was sacrificing quality in the name of quantity. Today when I look back at those old reviews I cringe at my misinformed opinions, lack of insight and bad grammar (some of which was so bad I’ve gone back and given their entries on this site an editorial scrubbing). Mostly I can’t believe I reviewed so many records – even ones I had no interest in.

Writing reviews for Losing Today exposed me to a lot of cool bands I wouldn’t have heard otherwise. It got me free entrance into a handful of concerts and it even gave me a chance to interview some artists I admired (Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember from Spacemen 3, Anton Newcombe from The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Black Angels and Yuki from Asobi Seksu), but after several years boredom was setting in. The other writers – when there were other writers – were well intentioned, but their meager skills made my tired horseshit look like Lester Bangs in comparison, and I longed for a sense of community or at least some form of feedback (although I was thrilled to one day find a discussion on a shoegaze message board about how bad I sucked as a writer). I was simply uploading my reviews to a portal, and sometime a few days/weeks later it would appear, regardless of what I wrote. One time I even put a doctored picture of my friend’s newborn baby in place of the album cover in one of my reviews. It was time for a change.

After plotting my next move, I decided I would create my own blog – the one you’re reading right now. This would give me the freedom to do whatever I wanted to, and to, hopefully, have more direct interaction with readers through comments and emails. I came up with a list of names, and finally settled on Midnight To Six. It was the name of a fine song by The Pretty Things, a band I’d long admired, but more importantly the name had a cool vibe to it and captured the essence of what I was doing with music writing – it was a hobby for after hours. I originally planned to have the site be a clearing house for musical essays, interviews, thoughts, top ten lists and the like, but I soon found that all the time I had to spend writing about music could easily be taken up with reviews, so that’s been the majority of what I’ve been doing since.

The only other twist in the story is the brief period I spent writing for a website called Spectrum Culture (www.spectrumculture.com). They somehow found my site and, after a brief interview with its proprietor over Instant Message, I was in. This seemed like a good opportunity to write for someone with a higher profile, but it never felt quite right. The people that ran the site were really nice and accommodating, but they also had a lot of rules and writing for them kind of felt like work. I had spent years doing whatever I wanted, and all of a sudden I was faced with word minimums, editorial scrutiny and, worst of all, deadlines. I appreciated the opportunity to write for a more professional outfit (although not professional enough to pay me) but I never really liked the site’s content, and felt like Iggy Pop trying to sing a Yes song – this was not the right place for me and my unique brand of amateurism.

So, that brings us to the present day. Despite the occasional bout of frustration I still love doing it and I’m still getting a jolt of energy whenever I hear something new that excites me or when I interact with a reader. I guess that’s enough of a reward for me to keep at it.

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Special thanks must be given to my friend Jake, who, in addition to putting my writing skills to shame with his occasional post here under the name Beerbrarian, has proofread almost everything I’ve written over the past decade. The guy has a career, a wife, and two young kids, yet he always finds time to read my thoughts on third-rate music nobody cares about. I’m grateful for that. He also keeps a well-tended blog over at http://beerbrarian.blogspot.com/

12A26A (aka David)

P.S. Listen to Black Sabbath

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Sounds Like……


Do you think Oasis sound like The Beatles, or that Interpol are ripping off the dark and brooding corpse of Joy Division? Well, sort of. They’re obviously inspired by them, and in the case of Oasis, they might even nick a few lyrics or melodies here and there. However, as much as those bands remind you of their influences I would never in a million years confuse an Interpol song for a Joy Division song or an Oasis song for a Beatles track.
For some reason I’m intrigued by bands that can pull off a perfect facsimilie of another band. I mean a real copy that could be passed off as the original. It’s not the most innovative thing in the world to do, but you have to respect the attention to detail. For example, if you think Interpol sounds like Joy Division, what do you think of “Lords Of Summer” by Australian group The Mark Of Cain?
 
The melody is exactly Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” which makes the comparison blatantly obvious, but more importantly, everyone in the band is doing what their instrumental counterpart in Joy Division would have done. The vocalist sounds exactly like Ian Curtis, the bassist is playing just like Peter Hook, the drummer is doing what Stephen Morris would have done with the song, and the guitars are totally Bernard Summer. Even the production style is totally remniscent of Unknown Pleasures-era Joy Division. Also, the song totally smokes, which makes it a lot more palatable.
Here are a few more of my favorite songs that could be passed off as someone else’s:
This is by a French band called Reverberation who released Blue Stereo Music in 1998…a pretty good space-rock album. The song is called “Cross Your Sky”, and it sounds entirely like Spiritualized, if Jason Pierce had a slight French accent.
Fleeting Joys are a California band with two excellent albums of My Bloody Valentine inspired shoegaze. This song, called “The Breakup” comes from their first, and if you told someone it was an unreleased My Bloody Valentine song they probably wouldn’t bat an eye.
Lastly, here are Space Needle, an unknown Long Island band that recorded from 1994-1997 and left behind “Sun Doesn’t Love Me Anymore”, which sounds more like The Flaming Lips than 75% of The Flaming Lips discography, if that’s even possible.
What are some of your favorite songs that can be passed off as someone else’s? And have you ever tried to actually fool anyone with them?

Hits Are For Squares…and so is Sonic Youth’s Best Of


Scrolling through the New York City Public Library’s website on a quest to find some good music to order (I’ll have a blog post sometime in the future on the insanely good selection of music available for free in New York Public Libraries), I noticed they just acquired Hits Are For Squares the Sonic Youth Best Of collection put out by Starbucks a few years back. I have all of Sonic Youth’s “regular” albums (including the Deluxe Editions of Goo, Dirty and Daydream Nation, thank you very much), but I ordered it because it had an exclusive track (it’s called “Slow Revolution” and it’s underwhelming), and I wanted to hear pre-Daydream Nation songs remastered. Basically, I ordered it because I’m a completest sicko who cares way too much about sound quality for his own health.

Anyway, I picked the CD up and was somewhat disturbed by it. Let’s get one thing clear – I’m not talking about the music. With the exception of the aforementioned “Slow Revolution”, the music on Hits Are For Squares is excellent (although the band’s output has been a little weaker this past decade). I’m not here to review the music or tell you why Sonic Youth is great. They just are. What I want to talk about is the sterile and conservative way Starbucks presents this CD to the public. Many of you out there may be cringing at just the idea of one of alternative rock’s longest-standing institutions partnering with an artless corporation like Starbucks. Based on reputations alone, the names Sonic Youth and Starbucks do seem a little strange together, but I’m not terribly bothered by it. It’s going to take a lot more than a name to upset me. After all, is Starbucks any better or worse than Capitol or Universal or any of the other major labels? Probably not.

My issue with Starbucks is how they made Hits Are For Squares all about Starbucks, and not about Sonic Youth. First let’s look at the hideous cover:

File:Hits Are for Squares cover.jpg

No that’s not a joke. There’s Starbucks product placement in a Sonic Youth album cover. If you can somehow get past that borderline sacrilegious move, you’ll notice that the front-cover image has absolutely nothing to do with Sonic Youth or anything they embody. I can see this as a cover for a John Mayer or Sheryl Crow album, but not Sonic Youth. It’s sad to see a group that’s had iconic covers by amazing artists like Raymond Pettibon, Gerhard Richter, and Richard Kerns saddled with such an ugly image that was clearly chosen to sell product, and not as good art. Also, what’s with the Parental Advisory warning? I can’t remember the last time I actually saw one of those on a new album. Why was it necessary? This isn’t exactly a 2 Live Crew cassette from 1992. Also, what parent in 2011 would actually be concerned about their kids listening to Sonic Youth?

OK, the next issue I have is with the tracklisting. Again, the songs are great, by why did Starbucks (and I’m totally assuming all the bad decisions were made by Starbucks and not the band) need to have each song “selected” by a celebrity. Did you know that “Disappearer” is Portia Del Rossi’s favorite Sonic Youth song, or that Beck is just nuts for “Sugar Kane”? Now that you know, do you care? The celebrity angle is extraneous and, once again, at odds with the spirit of what Sonic Youth is. Is Starbucks picturing people on line for coffee saying “I don’t know much about Sonic Youth, but if Eddie Vedder and Radiohead like them, then they’re probably worth checking out.”? Is “Teen Age Riot” any better of a song because it was Eddie Vedder’s choice? No, it’s a great fucking song and that should speak for itself.

Speaking of fucking, the liner notes, (which include the celebrities talking about the songs they chose) actually censor that word. I want fucking, not f*****g.

So there you have it, what could have been a celebration of an important band’s best work from three decades ended up a hideous piece of crass commercialization that adheres to all the most conservative impulses of corporate America. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my grande pumpkin spice latte.

The Book I Read: The Fallen by Dave Simpson


I just finished reading a book called The Fallen, by British journalist Dave Simpson. On the surface, it’s the story of Manchester post-punk band The Fall, but it’s told in a unique way, with Simpson going on a mission to track down and interview each of the band’s 45 ex-members (referred to as The Fallen).

At the center of The Fall story is singer Mark E. Smith, the group’s only consistent member (as Smith said “If it me and your Granny on bongos, then it’s The Fall”), and perhaps one of the maddest front-men of all time. Although Simpson tries to answer the question “What kind of lunatic fronts a band that goes through 45 members?” the answer is not so easy to come by. After reading the ex-Fall members’ reflections on their  time in the band, you’re not sure whether Smith is some kind of genius, a lunatic, or just a speed-addled alcoholic with a sick sense of humor and bizarre ideas of how to run a band. Neither is the author.

Speaking of the author, Simpson himself becomes a pivotal character in The Fallen, as he spends a large chunk of his waking hours compulsively trying to track down everyone who ever played with the band, some as briefly as one gig. Some of The Fallen are easy enough to find, but many vanished into obscurity long ago, requiring Simpson to play the role of private investigator; scouring internet message boards, calling random phone numbers or visiting shadowy addresses abandoned years ago, all in hopes of crossing another name off his lengthy list. The whole process starts to become an obsession, and eventually leads to the breakup of a long-term relationship! I guess women don’t like it when their boyfriends devote all their free time to tracking down someone who played bass in The Fall for three weeks in 1981.

It’s a great read, and the best part is that The Fall are still active, so there’s always the potential for more chapters to come.

Check it out over at: http://www.amazon.com/Fallen-Life-Britains-Insane-Group/dp/1847671446/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1320440963&sr=8-1

Also, you can check out Dave Simpson’s blog on The Fallen over at: http://thefallenblog.blogspot.com/

20 Years Of Nevermind


Nirvana’s Nevermind is an undeniably important album, not just for its impact on music history, but for me personally. You see, I’m a finicky music fan; prone to turning my back on bands as my tastes evolve with age and exposure to different sounds. Despite that, Nevermind has never left my collection since I first purchased it from BMG in 1991 at the age of 14. When I was into metal and hardcore punk during my teen years, I could appreciate Nevermind on that level. When I got into garage rock and psychedelic music in my early-twenties, I could listen to Nevermind on that level. When I stopped caring about genre or style, and started paying more attention to songwriting and performance, Nevermind still worked for me.

Twenty years later, the record’s success is still an anomaly in the industry. After all, it bears no resemblance to the calculated and callous corporate music that almost always dominates sales charts. This was a record with a song called “Territorial Pissings”. A record including the lyric “God is gay” (“Stay Away”). A record whose inner sleeve featured the singer giving the finger to the camera. A record whose front cover featured – gasp – a penis (something I’d like to see a popular artist try to get away with in 2011). There have been theories speculating why the album did so well; usually something about it being the “antidote to hair metal bands”, or “Kurt Cobain connecting with the pain and angst suburban teenagers were feeling”. That’s not it at all. All styles of music recede into the shadows after a few years in the spotlight, and hair metal would have done the same. As for the angst theory, if angst sold albums, Black Flag would be wealthier than Warren Buffett. No, Nevermind was a success because it took all the great ideas that had been accumulating in underground music for the previous quarter century and presented them in a tuneful way. Oh, and it had major label backing. After all, promotion takes a lot of money, and no indie label out there could afford to give their records the kind of push that DGC gave Nevermind. The $65,000 recording budget alone was more than most alternative bands were given for recording, advertising, touring, and videos combined.

Listening to Nevermind in 2011 is quite a different experience than hearing it in the 1990s. Enough time has finally passed that I can hear it again on its own merits, and not as the omnipresent juggernaut it was. When I listen to it now I no longer think of “grunge”, Seattle, the romanticized image of Kurt Cobain as some kind of doomed poet, or any of the other annoying angles the media used to exploit the Nirvana phenomenon. All I hear now are the songs, which still sound pretty fresh and exciting to me. It also sounds very much at odds with the rest of the American “alternative explosion” that Nirvana was supposedly spearheading (the press’ words, not mine or the bands). I can’t speak for the band members, but Nevermind doesn’t sound like it was made by a group of guys that were sitting around listening to The Smashing Pumpkins, moshing to Rage Against The Machine, or wondering why Jeremy spoke in class today. The album’s blend of punk and classic rock songwriting sounds far more radical than anything their popular alt-contemporaries were doing; more like talented music geeks trying to make music they would like to listen as much as their Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Pixies, Melvins, Jesus Lizard…etc. records.

The only aspect of Nevermind that disappoints me now is that the pop culture moment it created didn’t last longer. It gave real artists an environment where they could finally have a shot at success, while still making music that was interesting, sometimes even challenging. Unfortunately Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 signaled the decline of underground rock in mainstream American culture. By 1997 many of the truly alternative bands signed in Nevermind’s wake were dropped by their labels, the once successful Lollapalooza festival came to an end (with a final lineup that included decidedly non-alternative acts like Korn and Snoop Dogg), and godawful morons like Smashmouth and Sugar Ray were as unavoidable as Nirvana had been back in 1991. In the end, conservative commercialism won, as it always seems to do in modern American society. As for me, pretty soon I’ll be trading in my old copy of Nevermind for the new two disc reissue and remembering one of the last times that the best new record was also the most popular one.