Monday, February 25, 2013

end of year commentary for The Wire, 2012

I’ve always been more about records, not so much about live. So perhaps it’s a sign of the times, or a sign of something,  that the music experiences that affected me most this year weren’t artifacts but performances. When the prevailing modes of distribution and consumption have the effect of at once reifying and insubstantialising music into units of decontextualized data, there’s much to recommend being forcibly reminded that actual living beings made the sounds you’re hearing.  So the moments that linger in the memory at year’s end mostly involve the presence of the performers (and, of equal analogue-flashback importance, an audience). The imposing ludicrousness of Mayhem, at By:Larm in Oslo, and of Laibach, at Incubate in Tilburg. Also at Incubate: the frangible exhilaration and frayed nerves of Maria & the Mirrors; Chris & Cosey, thick and wet and absolutely stunning; Raime’s rhythmic stealth and lustrous monochrome;  the charisma of Carla Bozulich; Buzzcocks blasting down memory lane, even with Diggle’s daft guitar heroics;  getting coerced into conga-ing to the schlager-tastic De Deurzakkers.  Ariel Pink’s peculiar hissy-fit of a show at the Fonda Theatre, LA.  Totally nowtro: Skrillex’s digi-maximalist audio-video barrage at Hard Summer;  Kode 9 slaying a Berlin club crowd and showing that post-step eclecticism needn’t be tepid and diffuse.  Totally retro:  Go  Gos at Hollywood Bowl;  Nightingales in St. Gallen (bizarrely sounding closer to Family and Groundhogs than a shambling-band nostalgia act). Some records did manage to sneak through the numb info-overload anomie and make an impression: Ariel’s Mature Themes, especially the gorgeous last three tunes, and “Steviepink Javascript” off Ku Klux Glam; Death Grips; the brave move of Woebot’s Hallo; Maria Minerva; Mark Van Hoen’s Revenant Diary, particularly the astonishing “Holy Me”; the Sun Araw/Congos communion; Hyperdub women Cooly G and Laurel Halo.


albums (new)

Ariel Pink, Mature Themes (4AD)
Mark Van Hoen, The Revenant Diary (Editions Mego)
Death Grips, The Money Store (Epic)
Woebot, Hallo (Hollow Earth)
Traxman, Da Mind of Traxman (Planet Mu)
Maria Minerva, Will Happiness Find Me (Not Not Fun)
Cooly G, Playin Me (Hyperdub)
Ariel Pink, R. Stevie Moore, Ku Klux Glam (Stroll On)
The Congos/Sun Araw/M. Geddes Gengras, Icon Give Thank, Rvng Intl.
Laurel Halo, Quarantine (Hyperdub)

albums (archival)

David Cain, The Seasons (Trunk)
A.R. Kane, The Complete Singles Collection (One Little Indian)
Laurie Spiegel, The Expanded Universe (Unseen Worlds)
Disco Inferno, The Five EPs (One Little Indian)
Daphne Oram, The Oram Tapes Vol. 1 (Young Americans)
F.C. Judd, Electronics Without Tears (Public Information)
Various, Personal Soul (Numero Group)
some of my favorite 2012 things for The Thoughtfox, Faber & Faber blog

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti - Mature Themes (4AD)
Ariel Pink, R. Stevie Moore – Ku Klux Glam (Stroll On Records)
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, live at the Fonda Theatre, Los Angeles, October 5th 2012

I didn’t get on with Mature Themes at first, I must admit.  Found it goofy and throwaway and a bit fussed-over-sounding. The herky-jerky whimsy of opener “Kinski Assassin” had me flashing on bubblegum psych like Strawberry Alarm Clock and New Wave novelties by Split Enz and Cardiacs.... minor league stuff, you dig.  I did seriously wonder if Ariel Pink’s reign as my favourite musician of the last eight years had finally fizzled out. But Mature Themes snuck up on me, and now I love not only “Kinski Assassin” but even  more slight and silly ditties like “Schnitzel Boogie” (inspired by a favorite fast food joint) and “Pink Slime” (an ode to that meat-derived colloid used to bulk up burgers).  

Masked by the archness and frivolity of some of the material is the fact that this album is Ariel at his most open-hearted and forlorn.  Several of these songs—including the exquisitely melodic title track and “Farewell American Primitive,” which at one point was also going to be title track until “Mature Themes” displaced it—seem to address his break-up with long-time partner and pop performance artiste Geneva Jacuzzi, albeit with varying degrees of obliqueness and directness.

So, I suspect, does the gorgeous “Baby”, a romantic-erotic reverie (“holding hands and making love”) whose elegaic afterglow vibe suggests that the beloved is attainable only in memory.  That song’s slow Seventies soul mode and raspy vocal is a departure for Ariel. It shows how he uses other styles and other voices to express his own feelings. Pop as ventriloquism or costume-play, maybe. It verges close to the parody zone:  comedy-with-music-elements shows such as Mighty Boosh or Flight of the Conchords, whose mock-loverman “Business Time” isn’t so far from “Baby”. 

But that’s been part of pop from the start: the way that comedy and seriousness, authentic feeling and caricature, can coexist and commingle in a performance or recording without cancelling each other out.  Ariel revels in the stylization of emotion, but he’s venting real stuff, at least some of the time.  Not so much on Ku Klux Glam, though, his collaboration with hero and DIY role model R. Stevie Moore.  “Steviepink Javascript” (actually recorded back in 2001) is hilarious: a seemingly improvised-in-the-studio comedy-duet,  in the tradition perhaps of that Dexy’s album nobody bought, or Jah Wobble and John Lydon goofing off on PiL’s first album, or even  Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Derek & Clive. The two cult heroes stroke each other’s ego and make with the daft FX-processed  voices. But the music is actually amazing, a glistening glide of psychedelic  disco defaced with gouts and gashes of noise.

Joking aside, it’s a fine example of Pink’s experimental side, which also crops up on Mature Themes with the slinky ghost-funk of “Live It Up” and the swirling ambient  kaleidoscape of “Nostradamus & Me”.

Seeing Pink and his Haunted Graffiti bandmates at the Fonda Theater in LA was an odd experience: a gig that wasn’t very good, but that stuck in the memory much more than if it had been a straightforward, well-played rendition of the songs.  There was something off about the sound, a grating edge, exacerbated by Ariel feeding his voice through a battery of FX much of the time.  He seemed to be in a foul mood, and every so often would literally snarl at the crowd through the FX, like a cat having a hissy fit.  But perhaps this is just his technique, to put the audience on edge (the other time I saw him perform, in New York circa Before Today, he stormed off stage). There seemed to be a desire for the concert to be more than just another show by a middling-level indiepop band, watched with impassive pleasure by its dedicated but compact audience.  Towards the end Ariel muttered darkly that the gig we were witnessing  was “Winterland, 1978.... Kezar Pavilion, 1981.” In other words, the last ever gig by a legendary band that immediately afterwards split up (in those cases, the Sex Pistols and Throbbing Gristle). (Both of whom actually reformed much later, but that’s by the by).  What struck me again was the  ventriloquistic or play-acted aspect: someone trying to express himself, his authentic, innermost desires or frustrations, through this second-hand language, in this instance all those  read-about and handed-down Myths from rock history.

 A fascinating, conflicted figure. “Step inside my timewarp” he sings, on one Mature Themes song, and I’ll be doing that for a good while to come, I hope.