Tag Archives: criticism

Top 25 Songs of 2009: 11-14

14) “Cloud of Evil,” Blackout Beach. Carey Mercer is lost between genres. The praise for ‘avant-garde’ reinterpretation of pop music this year, 2009, has been universal. Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective continue to bask in the post-coital glow of descriptors like “innovation” and “difficulty” and “weird genius”. Fuck that. Mercer is twice as interesting, innovative and difficult as either of those two artists. He’s also twice as good — but difficult to classify. 2008’s Tears of the Valedictorian was a frenetic epic of an album that found catharsis in its song structure — most often by dropping all other instruments mid-song except Mercer’s terrific howls and a quick, pounding drumbeat. These emotional wails (“Bushels”, “Caravan Breakers”) were always precursors to an instrumental climax, formed by a wall of swirling, distorted guitars, pounding drums, and staccato keyboards. “Cloud of Evil” is the inverse, in terms of form, as the climax never comes but rather builds for three and a half minutes without repose. Instead of live drums, the background is electronic beats and heavily delayed guitars. The tension here is altered. Instead of when will the climax come (re: Tears), the question becomes: will it come at all?

The answer is, of course, yes and no. And that’s exactly what makes “Cloud of Evil” ‘avant-garde’ in a way AC or DP could never be. Their resolutions are merely disguised behind polyrhythm, guitar effects, and complicated harmonies. Mercer, that wild magician of a musician, takes the tension of the verse awaiting the chorus and makes it his song. So that when Mercer reaches “Cloud of Evil”s crescendo while crying “decelerate, decelerate,” we now know exactly what he means.

13) “Jake Leg,” Baroness. Like their competitors, namely the far-superior Mastodon, Baroness are helping heavy metal return to clear, clean, unprocessed vocals. It’s a turn, in our opinion, for the better. Screaming, like everything else, is best in moderation. It’s sort of unfortunate that we can now understand the lyrics, what with the over-the-top fantasy gibberish these bands favor (“Crawl past the soft / Spiraled sinewy teeth / ‘Soiled dove!’ steal the fruit of it’s jaws”).

Ignoring the lyrics, which if taken in the right mood are still a lot of fun, “Jake Leg” is a bruising four-minute metal anthem, with a terrific verse-chorus-verse-chorus sing along. The vocals are multi-tracked relentlessly, giving them a brute force unreachable by a single voice. Although we had to miss Baroness’ recent show in SF, we wouldn’t be surprised if the mosh pit also included a raging side-pocket of lustful metal fans hoisting their fists in the air and yelling the words at the top of their lungs. Such is the nature of the best metal these days — so catchy that even Metallica would be jealous. More on that later. [YouTube]

12) “Americon,” Slayer. Not a band comfortable with explicitly political songs, Slayer has stepped out of their comfort metal zone with “Americon”. Although the message feels six years or so off the mark (“it’s all about the motherfucking oil / regardless of the flag upon each soil”), formally speaking the song still rips. Double bass, guitar solos, shrieking vocals. Shit the drums are good. But come on, it’s Slayer. While the USA rips off other countries to become Americon, Slayer is so damn consistent they’re practically robotic. Hello, Slayertron. [YouTube]

11) “Lust for Life,” Girls. A gay little ditty with a title stolen from Iggy Pop (whose actual song was stolen by Jet), the steady bright guitar, harmonica, and clean bass runs underneath make this one of those ‘summer songs’ bloggers have been obsessing over this past year. Despite all the hype, this is the only song that still seems listenable. From the cheesy but memorable lyrics (“I wish I had a sun tan / I wish I had a beach house / I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine”) to the short and sweet structure — this song is the best soundtrack 2009 had to offer for those moment when everything just seems so damn crazy. For a song about insanity, it sure feels good to relax with some Girls.

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Christmas Contra(band)

12 Books for Music Fans

[We here at Fredfu have snubbed Christmas for long enough. Now that Saint Nick is only a distant memory, we’ll happily indulge in some post-xmas commodity shopping.]

Top 12 Books about Music (that we know of)

I am, first and foremost, a music fan, willing to take that title as far as it will go: through work and play and pain. Everyone listens to music, but not everyone enjoys it the same way — too often we let our apartments and townhouses (homes are so 2007) lapse into a forgettable and shameful silence.

Silence is the sound of boredom: meditation, reading, thinking, yoga, sleeping, boring.

There is only one condition in which silence is desirable — when reading a book-about-music. Don’t forget, however, that interruptions are welcome. Every song mentioned in each and every book will be listened to. Loud.

Forget your mind, listen to music — but read these books before, after, or while you do.

Best Music Writing 2009 — Edited by Greil Marcus and Daphne Carr

Contents summarized: the best writing about music in 2008 (I know, I know the name says 2009 but god save print media, the slow bastards) as far as Mr. Marcus and Mrs. Carr are concerned. Something to note — my former professor at UC Davis, Joshua Clover, is included. Mr. Clover mentions in his new book the admiration and respect he has for Mr. Marcus. Also, they know each other. Let us examine the respective book covers:

Curious isn’t it? The yellow design scheme, the two color 20/09 matching almost exactly the color division of 19/89. Interesting too, that both Mr. Marcus and Mr. Clover’s names are boxed by yellow — and the “jo” of joshua, the two letters placed outside the box, well, they’re yellow too.

Is this the two acclaimed music journalists’ idea of an inside(thebox) joke? They both live in Berkeley, Calif. Check too, although it’s hard to read, the approving review on BMW 2009’s cover — it’s from the Boston Phoenix newspaper. Where did Mr. Clover go to college? Boston. Where does his piece in BMW focus on? — Route 128, outside of Boston.

Someone, maybe it was William R. Hearst or B. Gates — not really sure either way — who once said something about journalism. Something about the color yellow and writing and the news media and starting wars with the Spanish countryside.

We suspect Marcus & Clover are up to something more than just promoting each other’s books. We don’t know what it is. But we’re pretty sure we like it.

Moving on.

[The rest of the blurbs, except my ramblings on Clover’s book, natch, are pulled from Amazon.com and other internet sources — you know, plagiarism with quote signs]

1989: bob dylan didn’t have this to sing about by Joshua Clover

After reading half the book, I can recommend it whole-heartedly. I expect the second bit to multiply my enjoyment two-fold. In a nutshell, and Clover fights hard against any kind of nut shelling (as one might expect, the process sounds unpleasant), the book does something like this: 1989 is the year the wall fell and with it the idea of communism as a world system, democracy/capitalism turned hegemonic. A singular image of the world rose out of the Wall’s rubble. Concurrently, grunge appeared, hip-hop turned from attacking the system to violence and excess in and of themselves, rave attracted thousands of revelers in the UK, and somehow, somewhere these musics formed a structure of feeling that interacted with, was a part of, and formed because of this ‘flattening of history’ due to the success of western democratic-capitalism. Or something like that. I’m haven’t read part two yet.

33 1/3: Doolittle by Ben Sisario


“The Pixies have had a career unlike any other in alternative rock, disappearing as a not-quite-next-big-thing only to become gods in absentia. Doolittle is the embodiment of their abrasive, exuberant, enigmatic pop. While traveling Oregon with Charles Thompson, chatting about Surrealism and llamas, and interviewing other members of the Pixies, Ben Sisario reveals the inner workings of this knotty masterpiece.”

33 1/3: Let’s Talk About Love by Carl Wilson


Non-fans regard Celine Dion as ersatz and plastic, yet to those who love her, no one could be more real, with her impoverished childhood, her (creepy) manager-husband’s struggle with cancer, her knack for howling out raw emotion. There’s nothing cool about Celine Dion, and nothing clever. That’s part of her appeal as an object of love or hatred with most critics and committed music fans taking pleasure (or at least geeky solace) in their lofty contempt. This book documents Carl Wilson’s brave and unprecedented year-long quest to find his inner Celine Dion fan, and explores how we define ourselves in the light of what we call good and bad, what we love and what we hate.”

33 1/3: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea by Kim Cooper


“Of all the recordings to emerge from the Athens-via-Denver collective called Elephant 6, Neutral Milk Hotel’s second album is the one that has worked its way under the most skins. Magnet magazine named it the best album of the 1990s, and Creative Loafing recently devoted a cover story to one fan’s quest to understand why band leader Jeff Mangum dropped out of sight soon after Aeroplane’s release. The record sells steadily to an audience that finds it through word of mouth.

Weird, beautiful, absorbing, difficult, In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is a surrealist text loosely based on the life, suffering and reincarnation of Anne Frank, with guest appearances from a pair of Siamese twins menaced by the cold and carnivores, a two-headed boy bobbing in a jar, anthropomorphic vegetables and a variety of immature erotic horrors. Mangum sings his dreamlike narratives with a dreamer’s intensity, his creaky, off key voice occasionally breaking as he struggles to complete each dense couplet.

The music is like nothing else in the 90s indie underground: a psychedelic brass band, its members self-taught, forging polychromatic washes of mood and tribute. The songs stick to one narrow key, the images repeat and circle back, and to listen is to be absorbed into a singular, heart-rending vision.”

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross

“In this sweeping and dramatic narrative, Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, weaves together the histories of the twentieth century and its music, from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties; from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to downtown New York in the sixties and seventies up to the present. Taking readers into the labyrinth of modern style, Ross draws revelatory connections between the century’s most influential composers and the wider culture. The Rest Is Noise is an astonishing history of the twentieth century as told through its music.”

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs


“Until his death in 1982 at age 34, Bangs wrote freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll pieces for Creem, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and London’s NME (New Musical Express. As a rock critic, he was adept at distinguishing the commercially packaged product from the real thing. Written in a conversational, wisecracking, erotically charged style, his impudent reviews and essays explore the connections between rock and the body politic, the way rock stars cow their audiences and how the pursuit of success and artistic vision destroys or makes rock performers as human beings. This collection (which includes no Rolling Stone pieces) covers “fake moneybags revolutionary” Mick Jagger, John Lennon (“I can’t mourn him”), David Bowie “in Afro-Anglican drag,” Iggy Pop, the Troggs, Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Chicago, the Clash, many more.”

Mystery Train by Greil Marcus

“Catch a train to the heart of rock ‘n’ roll with this essential study of the quintessential American art form. First published in 1975, Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train remains a benchmark study of rock ‘n’ roll and a classic in the field of music criticism. Focusing on six key artists—Robert Johnson, Harmonica Frank, Randy Newman, the Band, Sly Stone, and Elvis Presley—Marcus explores the evolution and impact of rock ‘n’ roll and its unique place in American culture. This fifth edition of Mystery Train includes an updated and rewritten Notes and Discographies section, exploring the evolution and continuing impact of the recordings featured in the book.”

Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads by Greil Marcus

“Like a Rolling Stone is the definitive biography of the greatest pop single ever made. Recorded in Columbia’s Studio A in New York on 16 June 1965, “Like A Rolling Stone” was instantly of its time-and so strong it has escaped time altogether. Greil Marcus recreates the brilliantly competitive pop world of 1965, and the energy, the anger, the thrill and the horror that Bob Dylan turned into a revolutionary six-minute single. Forty years later the song remains the signal accomplishment of modern music. It drew to itself disparate traditions of American music and speech; it redrew the map of the country itself; it left behind a world that was not the same. The whole adventure is here.”

Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus

“Greil Marcus’s absorbing new study…dips in and out of the history of the Great Refusal, all the way from the medieval Lollards and Brethren of the Free Spirit to the Dadaists, the French Situationists, the Children of the May 1968 uprising in France and British punk rockers. Lipstick Traces, however, is no sedate academic record of libertarian revolt but a bold blending of anecdote, personal confession and cultural analysis, cutting backward and forward from Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols to the Surrealists, from Alexander Trocchi of the 1950’s avant-garde group know as Lettrist International to George Grosz, from the Anabaptists in the 16th century to Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Danny the Red of the French student rebellion…[Marcus’s] book is impressively adept at bringing alive some of the dramatic moments of the history it charts…A coruscatingly original piece of work, vibrant with the energy of the bizarre happenings it maps out.”

The Old, Weird America by Greil Marcus

“The year’s best work of criticism, hands down . . . Marcus draws bold freehand loops around Dylan’s music, loops so wide and loose that they take in not just the breadth of American folk music, but huge chunks of American history as well. This is the best kind of history book, one that acknowledges that mythology is sometimes the truest kind of fact.” –Stephanie Zachareck, Newsday

Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner

“Milner tells the story of recorded music with novelistic verve, ferocious attention to detail, and a soulful ambivalence about our quest for sonic perfection. He shows how great recordings come about not through advances in technology but through a love of the art, and that same love is the motor of his prose.” —Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise

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