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Great Music, but is the Austin City Limits Music Festival Simply Too Big?

AUSTIN CITY LIMITS MUSIC FESTIVAL


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(4/5)

Pros: Great headlining bands and a lot of really cool supporting acts; definitely an experience….


Cons: Agoraphobia

Started in 2002 as an extension of the PBS live concert series of the same name, the Austin City Limits Music Festival has quickly become regarded as one of the best large-scale music events in the country, with attendance expanding from 40,000 in its first few years to nearly 100,000 some ten years later. Taking place over the course of several days in early October at Austin’s Zilker Park which offers a breathtaking view of the downtown Austin skyline, the festival is produced by the C3 Presents promotion which also stages the Lollapalooza festival which occurs annually in Chicago, and attracts prominent musical performers from around the globe as well as promising up-and-coming artists. In addition to the music lineup, the ACL Festival includes a lineup of activities for children and also showcases local artists and food vendors in an attempt to feel more like an all-encompassing event experience (as might be expected, all food and beverage available at the festival is on the pricey side).

breathtaking view of downtown
A breathtaking view of downtown Austin seen behind one of the two main stages.

Austin City Limits splits its varied lineup of over 100 musicians and groups between eight stages, with set times that begin in late morning and run through 10 PM. Ticket prices for the festival fall in the $250 range for a three-day pass or $100 for a single day pass. Obviously the thing that sets ACL apart from other Austin festivals is the quantity of well-known, headlining artists: the 2014 lineup of the festival (which took place on the weekends of October 3-5 and 10-12) included sets from artists such as Skrillex, Eminem, Outkast, Pearl Jam, and Beck. For me though, considering that by the time the main acts begin, there’s some 75,000 trying to cram around the main stages, the undercard which is built around less high-profile but still outstanding artists, actually provides the more attractive shows. 2014’s festival included day-time and early evening sets from such groups as Lorde, Lana Del Rey, The Replacements, Spoon, Chvrches, AFI, Tune-Yards, The Head and the Heart, St. Vincent, and dozens of others (not sure I’m proud to admit that I caught Iggy Azalea performing her 2014 hit “Fancy” live….). There’s a nice variety of all sorts of music represented at the festival, from hip-hop to country-western and folk, and even if some of the music wouldn’t be attractive to all festival attendees, perhaps the best thing about the festival is that one can discover and experience a wide variety of music that he might not otherwise have had the opportunity to.

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Much as rain is always appreciated in Texas, it leads to Zilker Park turning into a mud bog.


In 2013, the festival (which runs from Friday to Sunday) was expanded from one weekend to two, with the headlining artists appearing both weekends in an attempt to limit the crowd that would attend on any one day, but having attended the festival both before and after this change, I’m not sure that this effort has really had any effect on the number of people who attend each day. To me, the expansion was just an excuse to draw in more people to the festival, thereby increasing its revenue: 75,000 is still a large amount to squeeze into the 350 acre Zilker Park, and by the end of any given day when the crowd is at its largest, just making your way from one end of the park to the other becomes a chore. At any large festival like this, seeing all the performances one would like becomes all but impossible: though the set-times are somewhat staggered (less so as the day goes on), an attendee has to “choose his battles” so to speak and to some extent plan out his “must-see” list. I also should say that it’s increasingly difficult to get a good vantage point for the headline bands playing at the festival unless one is willing to “camp out” at a stage well in advance of their set time. Though there is a chair-free zone around the main stages, the standing-room areas immediately around the stages quickly fill up and remain extremely crowded as the day turns into night.

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A further problem with the expansion from one weekend to two deals with the performers themselves. Though both weekends of the festival feature what is essentially the same lineup, the expansion seems to have had an adverse effect on the bands that are booked for the festival in the first place. Not every group would be willing to “honker down” in Austin and the surrounding area for a two week period, and the quality of the lineup from top-to-bottom seems to have diminished in the past couple years. When I attended the festival previously in 2012, there not only seemed to be more bands playing at the festival, but the overall strength of the lineup as a whole was greater. Additionally, set-times appeared to be staggered a little better during the 2012 event, making it possible to see at least some of the set that most bands were playing if one wandered from stage to stage throughout the day. The groups featured on 2014’s schedule mostly began their sets at the same time, and there honestly only seemed to be a handful of groups playing at any given time: by mid-afternoon, the number of performances going on at any point had dropped to three or four. This only increased the number of people watching any given show at any given time and also made it more difficult to navigate the park from one end to another – particularly when a group like Lorde was booked at a secondary stage smack bang in the middle of the venue, essentially cutting the main stages off from one another.

ACL
ACL: It’s an experience for sure.


Ultimately, the massive crowd at Austin City Limits Music Festival is for me, the main drawback of the experience: there simply seems to be too many people at this event. By the early evening, it’s increasingly frustrating to have to negotiate a sea of chairs, blankets, and their occupants in the area between stages – especially in low light conditions, and standing half a mile from the stage isn’t an especially great vantage point to view any concert even with additional speaker installations and huge video display screens that show what’s happening on stage. For me, when placed alongside a comparatively (much) smaller festival like Fun Fun Fun Fest which takes place in early November, ACL just seems like an overcrowded mess. Sure, one can see some great shows during the course of the day, but the large crowd makes it difficult for most people to really get the experience out of the festival that they might want. On the other hand, many younger people attending the festival seem mainly interested in drinking as much beer as possible and acting like a fool when electronic groups such as Skrillex, Calvin Harris, or Zedd begin what is essentially a huge rave-like concert once the sun goes down. As much as that sounds like something a younger version of myself would have really been into, as I get older I find myself appreciating more small-scale shows more than the balls-to-the-wall free-for-all that a large-scale festival like Austin City Limits would provide.

performances
Oh sure, ACL is supposed to be like this…

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…but this is sometimes what it seems to turn into…

To be completely honest, I think the organizers of the ACL Festival do about as good a job as they can ensuring the festival runs smoothly and most attendees at the festival are understanding with regard to their fellow attendees (I actually encountered more moronic behavior at a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert I recently attended in Dallas than I did at the entire ACL festival, which was a bit of a shock). I have seen some really amazing performances the times I did go to ACL, but I also was very much ready to leave at a certain point during each day due simply to becoming frustrated with dealing with the immense crowd. Though the lineup of artists performing is frankly unbelievable, in all likelihood most festival-goers won’t be as close to the action as they would like or be able to see all the bands they would want to see, even if they are increasingly aggressive in making their way from one stage to the next. As much as I would call ACL worthwhile and generally enjoyable as a populist music festival with (obviously) mass appeal, I would personally be more likely to choose to go to a smaller and more manageable festival in Austin; both November’s more niche-oriented Fun Fun Fun Fest (my choice for best festival in Austin) and the spring’s Psych Fest fit this bill nicely.

Meghan Trainor’s All About That bASS on the TITLE EP

TITLE EP by Meghan Trainor


(2/5)

Pros: “All About That Bass” is pretty catchy whether I’d like to admit it or not; if you’re 14 years old and female, you’ll probably enjoy the EP

Cons: Musically unexciting; “cleverness” wears thin after a bit


It speaks to the overwhelming power of big-time media corporations that I, having precisely no interest in modern pop music, would nonetheless be exposed to one of 2014’s biggest and most successful songs. Having an uplifting “girl power” type message about being true to and accepting yourself for who you are, singer and songwriter Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” which sounds like a ‘50s doo-wop song performed by a modern “diva” type singer, slowly but surely gained momentum in the pop charts over the latter part of the summer of 2014, eventually replacing Taylor Swift at the top of the charts in mid-September. I imagine it was a bit of a surprise to some that a basically unknown artist would replace a music powerhouse like Swift in the number one position, but this can’t be that shocking in the bigger history of pop music, especially given the cheerfully quirky nature of Trainor’s song.


Don’t press that play button unless you want this thing stuck in your head all day…

What most people might not realize about Meghan Trainor is that her 2014 EP Title, which features “Bass” as its lead single, is not her first attempt at making a name for herself in the music biz: she actually has a trio of independently-released albums under her belt even though she’s only 20 years of age. After showing promise as a songwriter, Trainor attended songwriting workshops in Nashville, and eventually collaborated with producer Kevin Kadish to make “All About That Bass,” refusing offers to sell the song to other artists and choosing instead to release the song as a single of her own. Grooving along to a string bass line and lots of peppy percussion elements, “Bass” is nothing if not an infectious bit of pop music, but there’s not a whole lot of substance behind the glossy exterior and the song actually has been criticized for being aggressive towards what its lyrics refer to as “skinny bitches.” Numerous artists have successfully older song formulas for the modern age, but the real question is whether or not Trainor can prove she has continued relevance and longevity in a modern music industry that too often seems obsessed with whatever is newest and shiniest.

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The temptation to come up with a “witty” caption for this pic is strong, but I’ll fight off the urge.

The cleverness featured in “Bass” figures in most every song on Title, all of which operate in much the same way, with Trainor seeming like a sort of modern soothsayer-meets-motivational speaker trying to improve the self-confidence of young women. At their best, these songs are cute and amusing with some playfully naughty themes, but at their worst they almost seem self-indulgent and a bit snotty, suggesting that Trainor knows all too well how these “witty” songs are likely to be consumed by the listening public. Built around a ukelele melody, hand claps and bassy, doo-wop male vocals, the album’s title track discusses Trainor’s desire to have a “title” in a romantic relationship, and not just be considered a “friend.” Though I like the baritone sax blasts that burp out during the chorus, the almost obligatory “real talk” interlude that plays out over dubstep-like electronic music is kinda iffy. On this song and all the others here, Trainor’s vocals sound bubbly and appealing – but also come across as almost mechanical. I probably don’t want to know how much production work and sound engineering went into the making of this album nor would I want to hear a stripped down, unpolished version of the song.

Third track “Dear Future Husband” (ironically??) borrows the repeating male vocal parts from Dion’s 1961 hit “Runaround Sue” and is another track that has Trainor speaking to a hypothetical male partner about the do’s and don’t’s of a relationship with her. By this point, the formula was getting tiresome to me, though I’m not exactly (or at all) the “target audience” for this release: hell, I’d expect most of the target listeners would not have a clue that elements from the track were lifted entirely from a song that’s five decades old. Album finale “Close Your Eyes” sounds a bit like an ‘50s slow-dancing tune, with lyrics that again attempt to empower the young female listeners out there. Obviously, the message Trainor is trying to get across throughout the album is a worthwhile one considering society’s focus on very limited concepts of female attractiveness, but I’m not sure that the overkill presented here is either the right or even an effective way to go about enacting a paradigm shift. One could almost be inclined to believe that the whole “message” would simply be a ploy to ensure more publicity and album sales.

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Girl Power circa 1997 was a bit different…or was it?

Probably about the best thing I could say about Title is that it’s ideal for what it is – a spunky bit of bubblegum pop. I also have to point out that this album came out at just the right time to have some impact in the charts. Considering the focus in the past month on gender issues in modern society, a “girl power” album like this would hit the spot, and obviously did make quite a splash. Having said all that, this feels suspiciously to me like one-hit wonder material: I think Trainor does have talent as a pop songwriter (she’s already written tracks for country artist Rascal Flatts and Disney Channel singer/actress Sabrina Carpenter) and she definitely crafts some wonderful vocal parts in her songs, but I almost believe she’d need a lot more luck to make it as a solo artist. Frankly, it’s a tough go for pop musicians anymore: though a few “artists” (Katy Perry comes to mind) have immense success mostly due to massive record label push – and for having a body of the type Trainor seems to be speaking out against, many more flop either initially or eventually (the stat goes that for every major label artist that achieves massive success, ten are utter failures). Perhaps Meghan Trainor has a few more tricks up her sleeve following her initial smash success, but I wouldn’t be at all shocked if she essentially vanishes once the hype over “Bass” dies down. As for the Title EP, if you’re not a teenager any longer, I don’t see much of a reason why you’d need to own it.

hard to argue
It’s hard to argue with lyrical genius.

Pulling Back the Curtain on Lewis: ROMANTIC TIMES

ROMANTIC TIMES by Lewis

(3/5)

Pros: Dreamy, romantic vibe

Cons: Lewis’ music formula isn’t as compelling the second time around

Another in a long string of albums that have inexplicably picked up an audience years after being ignored upon their initial release, the 2014 reissue of L’Amour, a 1983 album by an enigmatic musician known only as Lewis, has to be considered one of the most pleasant musical surprises of the year. Here was a disc that positively embodies the semi-cheesy brand of ‘80s soft rock to a T, yet sounds so out of place in the modern music scene that one can’t help but be fascinated by it. Sitting in obscurity for decades, this album was the latest rediscovery released by the folks at the Light in the Attic record label, who seem to specialize in locating the best and most compelling thrift store treasures the world has to offer. L’Amour was generally well-received by critics willing to look past its flaws to see it as a unique if unassuming low-key wonder but a few months following its release, an even bigger shock wave reverberated through the music community. Not only had the album’s creator (real name Randall Wullf) been tracked down in Canada, but a second album from Lewis had turned up in a Canadian thrift store.

Ah, thrift vinyl
For all the trash that clogs up thrift store vinyl bins, there’s sometimes a bit of treasure…

Romantic Times, released in 1985 and credited to “Lewis Baloue,” continues much in the same way as its predecessor, containing eight quiet love songs that all but scream the fact that they were made in the 1980s due to their use of vintage synthesizer and drum machine sounds. Unlike L’Amour however, Romantic Times seems to have had better sound engineers working behind the scenes: whereas the vocals on the previous album were soft and delicate to the point of being whispered, one can not only almost decipher the words in the songs on Romantic Times, but also really hear the nuances of Lewis’ delivery. Unfortunately, this doesn’t wind up being a good thing though since one is left only with the impression that this guy overdoes the vibrato to the point of absurdity – to those not familiar with the terminology, the high-register vocals here are warbled and almost ghostly due to the singer manipulating the airflow behind them. Some singers use a ton of vibrato since it adds expression to their performance, but I think the technique works best when used in moderation. In the context of the almost shadowy music that Lewis makes, the vibrato becomes distracting and quite often simply seems distasteful and inappropriate.

vibrato
Lewis’ vocal performance would seem to be at the extremes of this scale.

Further problems on Romantic Times are caused by the fact that the tracks here are probably more closely related to popular music of the day. Many include corny synthesized drum beats that appear to have been created simply by pressing the “demo” button on a primitive drum machine or synthesizer. Thus, the tunes have limited to no character to them, sounding very similar to one another with virtually no change up from track to track. Keyboard parts that dominate the album are also unremarkable to the point of seeming dull, and the obligatory saxophone solos (and the vocal lines for that matter) seem several times to be attempting to replicate the melody from the pop standard “Strangers in the Night.” The music on L’Amour seemed to float by as if a listener was experiencing them only in his subconscious, but in contrast, the songs on Lewis’ second album not only are more substantial, they almost feel leaden and lifeless – which is kind of odd all things considered. Perhaps my disappointment with the album then is caused by the fact that being able to concentrate on the mundane and rather ordinary musicality present in Lewis’ music ruins the illusion, or maybe Lewis’ novelty value had simply run its course by the time I dove into Romantic Times. In the end, it’s not a bad second album, but it doesn’t seem to have that magical quality to it that made L’Amour so extraordinary.

maybe...
I’m not sure I’d place Lewis in this sort of company, but he certainly is going for a more mainstream sort of sound on his second album.

With a gentle acoustic guitar strum and warbly vocals heard over synthesized sweeping strings, woozy opening track “We Danced all Night” established well how the entirety of this album is going to function. By time the we begin to hear saxophones belting out solo lines in the background, it’s pretty clear that Lewis has gone the route of making soft rock that today seems almost hilariously cheesy. This effect only gets worse from here on out: “Bon Voyage” ups the ante by being the first of several tracks here that incorporate what I might describe as a lazy island vibe which only further establishes the schmaltzy mood. There’s an extremely relaxed, click-clack rhythm and accordion-like melody line, but Lewis (essentially repeating the same lyrics over and over) sounds particularly ghostly in his vocal delivery which doesn’t fit at all with the track. “Don’t Stop it Now” is probably more obviously romantic and sensual, but sounds almost identical to the track immediately before it due to the similar rhythm elements, and the slightly more poignant “It’s a New Day” carries on in much the same manner. “So Be in Love with Me” changes up the formula a bit, incorporating some rough synthesizer of the variety heard in most every “rousing” ‘80s movie soundtrack (think Top Gun) and “Bringing You A Rose” features vocals that often come across as sexualized cooing. “Where Did My Love Go Away” has the slowest tempo of any here and probably sells the emotional imagery in the lyrics the best, and album closer “As the Boats Go By” is a slightly melancholic but obvious sexual finale that suggests lazily passing time with a loved one.

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Much has been made when dealing with Lewis’ music that his sleeve art doesn’t fit at all with the music heard on his albums, and that’s certainly the case with Romantic Times. That playboy figure on the cover doesn’t seem at all like the same guy making these almost painfully restrained love ditties, and maybe that’s part of the strange allure of albums like this – I’ve listened to plenty of records based on the fact that the cover art was ridiculous in one way or another and am occasionally surprised by their overall quality. Still, discussion about how downright strange this album seems can’t disguise the fact that musically, Romantic Times is rather boring and uninspired. The same could probably be said for Lewis’ first album, but since a listener can never quite wrap his head around the music on L’Amour due to its low-fi sound quality, that record has a definite mystique about it. In shining more of a light on Lewis’ actual performance and musical abilities, Romantic Times is a bit like pulling the curtain aside on the Wizard of Oz. Certainly, there are precious few artists making deliriously romantic music as this nowadays, so Romantic Times has a built-in kitsch value, but I don’t think there’s honestly that much to get excited about here.

A Remarkable Rediscovery: Lewis’ Long Lost L’AMOUR Album

Lewis : L’AMOUR

(4/5)

Pros: Supremely pleasant to listen to; emotionally affecting

Cons: Very low key; won’t appeal to those who like their music loud and obnoxious

It’s kind of amazing that in recent years, as the mainstream music industry continues to struggle with adapting to the digital age, there’s been an increasing amount of interest in forgotten albums of the past that have been “rediscovered” sitting in the world’s thrift stores. Many of these albums, such as Rick Grossman’s have gained notoriety for their (awful? awesome? both?) sleeve art, but other albums have gradually found an audience (usually through word of mouth) simply because the “outsider music” contained on them is often vastly different from what one would normally come across. The recent reissuing of works like Kit Ream’s downright insane and the corny but heartfelt by a musician only billed as “Todd” (albums that, by most people’s standards, aren’t outstanding in any respect) – to say nothing about the story of the mysterious musician known only as Rodriguez who was the subject of the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man documentary – speaks to the fact that a sizable group of listeners has grown to appreciate earnest recordings made by “real people” as opposed to the polished bits of radio-ready pop that’s put out by the major labels. At the end of the day, it just seems like there’s something special about finding and appreciating an album that most people wouldn’t know even existed – it is, after all, that kind of thought that has fueled the “elitist” music-listening crowd for years.


One of the few existing pictures of Randall Wullf, a.k.a. “Lewis.”

Odd as it may be, 2014 may be the year when the thrift store treasure movement finally hit the mainstream. After being discovered in a Canadian thrift store, a forgotten 1983 album (released on the mega-obscure R.A.W. Label) by a musician known only as “Lewis” began to be noticed following an internet post back in 2012. Two years later, Light in the Attic records reissued the album titled L’Amour and began a search for the enigmatic musician who produced it. It was discovered that “Lewis” was the pseudonym of one Randall Wulff, Canadian stock broker and would-be playboy, who cut L’Amour at a California studio known mostly for recording punk bands and promptly vanished. After more research, those following the story were stunned to learn that Lewis/Wulff not only had recorded a handful of additional albums (one of which has been discovered rotting away in a thrift store and reissued), but was alive and well, living a quiet life in Canada and completely ignorant to the renewed interest in his music. In any case, the reissue of L’Amour was picked up for review by the mainstream music website Pitchfork, thus exposing Lewis/Wulff to an audience he would never have found otherwise, though I (elitist that I am) can’t help but feel a little bit like mainstream recognition has diminished the allure of Lewis and his music.

playboy?
Though he looks like a playboy, Lewis’ music suggests he was something entirely different.

Going into my first listen of L’Amour, I was a little skeptical about what the fuss was all about. Considering the utter lack of information about the album’s creator and given the sort of angelic, playboy-like imagery found on this album (and the even-more sketchy art found on the second known Lewis album titled Romantic Times), I almost expected this album to be a completely tasteless vanity disc made by a womanizing jerk (more similar to something of the Kit Ream variety). It’s no exaggeration to say that I was completely shocked when L’Amour turned out to be one of the most deliciously soft and subtle albums I can recall, full of concise, whispered singing, delicate piano melodies and lightly strummed acoustic guitar, and just a touch of background keyboard coloration. Though this album very much attempts to make songs that I could best describe as being adult contemporary or “easy listening,” L’Amour is absolutely nothing like the mind-numbingly obvious soft rock that dominated the radio in the 1980s: instead, it’s a disc that in 1983 would have been completely out of (or ahead of?) its time.

Featuring ten tracks and running 37 minutes, L’Amour exists less as a collection of individual songs as one, extended representation of a specific mood, and may be one of the most sensual “make out” albums ever produced. The quality of the album not only sounds very old-fashioned, perhaps having more in common in terms of its melody in construction with ragtime piano than anything in 1983, but also reminds me of the quiet piano music of composers like Erik Satie (best known for ). Album opener “I Thought the World of You” expresses (in its titling and the music itself) a sort of vaguely melancholic nostalgia, suggesting that it was the product of a musician trying to right the ship after a loved one vanished from his life. Operating at a restrained pace, the song features flowing, extremely well-written piano melodies and resonant, high-pitched and often softly howling vocals. Airy and atmospheric keyboard tones float around under the piano and voice parts, adding another layer of depth to the relatively sparse instrumentation, and the whole of the track is not only flawlessly executed, but also downright heart-wrenching. It really takes some skill on the part of a musician to make something like this feel real – too often, writers overdo the sense of sorrow or desperation, but Lewis’ approach is perfect.

alone

The album continues with “Cool Night in Paris,” a track that, with its gentle acoustic guitar melody and cooing vocal, nails a feel reminiscent of early 20th century pop and yes, sounds very French while the simple “My Whole Life” almost has a country-western vibe to it. Many of the songs on this album are surprising in their ability to emotionally affect a listener, this track and its occasional falsetto vocals may be the one that most perfectly captures a sense of quiet sadness and sincere longing: I could almost picture a cowboy playing it around a campfire while reminiscing about a far-away sweetheart. While the songs in the middle stretch of the album (“Like to See You Again,” “Things Happen That Way,” and “Summer Moon”) continue with the relaxed, piano-driven soft rock and compelling vocals, “Let’s Fall in Love Tonight” has a more ragtime feel due to its plunky piano melody. “Love Showered Me” is the track here that is perhaps not only the “loudest,” but also makes the most use of keyboard parts, possibly the one track then that establishes that L’Amour was in fact made in the synthesizer-heavy early ‘80s. “Romance for Two” finishes the album with another smokey, pleasantly lazy and delicate love song; it’s about as marvelous a closing track as could be expected from an album like this.

Even if this album does have a decidedly downbeat feel at times, it’s not a “depressing” album by any stretch and actually sounds quite hopeful by its end. L’Amour’s fourth track, an instrumental called “Even Rainbows Turn Blue,” may be the one that best illustrates the fundamental difference between this and most other “emotionally resonant” albums out there. This track would have been distasteful and corny if used on a record that relied on “button pushing” and flashy, “look at me” moments to get a programmed emotional response from a listener, but in the context of Lewis’ low-key, effortless composition and writing, it works perfectly. Ultimately, it’s strange to think that a deceptively simple album like L’Amour is much more affecting than most modern popular music; this disc would seem to indicate that most musicians striving to make an emotional listening experience are simply trying too hard. Though Randall Wullf appears to have distanced himself from this music (upon being found and approached, he actually turned down any of the royalties from the reissue and appeared to want nothing to do with it), I’m very much glad that L’Amour has been found again for the first time. Albums like this make one wonder what other marvels lay sitting around in flea market and thrift store vinyl bins. Lewis’ music is about the antithesis of most of today’s music, and may actually make some listeners uncomfortable since they would have no frame of reference in which to view the album, but it’s one of the most pleasantly surprising records I’ve stumbled across in a long time. It comes highly recommended.

The Long, Lost Aphex Twin Record Impresses Two Decades Late: The CAUSTIC WINDOW LP

CAUSTIC WINDOW Self-titled Album

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(4/5)

Pros: Unreleased music from Richard D. James a.k.a. Aphex Twin; a welcome contrast to typical electronica circa 2014

Cons: Probably would have been a curiosity piece at best in the bigger framework of James’ music career had it been released when produced in 1994

Regarded by many as one of the most important electronic musicians of the modern era, Richard D. James (usually identified under the moniker of Aphex Twin) has produced a seemingly endless body of work since first bursting onto the scene in the early 1990s and appeared to predict and/or inspire most every major electronic genre that’s turned up in the subsequent decades. In 1992, James released Selected Ambient Works 1985-92, an album described as one of the best of the decade, followed up two years later with the similarly outstanding Selected Ambient Works, Volume II that is one of my favorite records of all time – period. During the second half of the ‘90s, James flirted with mainstream success on the strength of several full-length albums and stand-alone singles that touched on all sorts of sonic territory. Some of these tracks (the almost demonic “Come to Daddy” comes to mind immediately) were downright disturbing, but at his best and perhaps most often, James infused gentle and supremely pleasant ambient backgrounds with more danceable rhythms and noticeable melodies.

Richard d. james
Richard D. James the (mad)man behind Aphex Twin.

Right as James seemed to be on the cusp of genuine mainstream accessibility after the truly exhilarating 1999 “Windowlicker” single however, he retreated into obscurity for more than a decade. 2001’s Druqks was far too abstract for many listeners to deal with, and perhaps suggested that James simply had gotten tired of trying to appease mass audiences. Following that album, new releases from James were all but non-existent throughout the remainder of the 2000s, leaving many fans including myself wondering if we’d ever get to hear another Aphex Twin album. Right when all seemed lost, 2014 shows up as the year in which Richard D. James reappeared on an electronic music scene that in my opinion is desperately in need of his unique contributions.

aphex twin music

In spring of April 2014, a copy of a semi-legendary, unreleased 1994 album from James (recording under the name “Caustic Window”) turned up on discogs.com, prompting a response from legions of Aphex Twin fans who initiated a kickstarter campaign to purchase the LP, apparently one of about five copies that were pressed as a test run. Upon the funding goal being reached in May, the Caustic Window LP was provided as a digital download to persons who had given money to the cause. In the bigger scheme of things, the self-titled Caustic Window album is a lesser work from James, a piece that clearly was made at the time when James’ music was very much in a transitional period. Still, it plays like a revelation considering that there’s been no new material from Richard D. James since the mid 2000’s – an album that only reaffirms the man’s influence over what has happened in electronic music in the last twenty years.

James through the years...
The many faces of Richard D. James

Many of the tracks on Caustic Window (which are instrumentally-based save the occasional, heavily manipulated vocal sample) suggest that at the time this was made in 1994, James was experimenting with ways of combining his earlier ambient recordings with more accessible, dance-floor ready melodies and beats. Opening track “Flutey” starts out like relatively low-key drum and bass, with a skittering helicopter-like sound acting as metronome. Shortly, we get warm keyboard tones providing a chord structure for the rest of the elements here to work off of: typical of James’ music, there’s a sense of perfectionism to the music, as if everything has been precisely planned out and executed. A fluttery woodwind-like melody provides a playful main theme in the song, while the slightly jumbled keyboard chords sound out underneath; the whole thing is deceptively complex. While some artists are borderline reckless as they cram more and more elements into their music, the construction of James’ music seems effortless despite the fact that there’s usually a lot going on at any given time. It’s almost as if these sounds are floating in straight out of a dream – which perhaps isn’t entirely wrong considering James’ claims that most of his songs come to him in his subconscious state.

hurry back richard d. james

“Stomper 101mod Detunekik” (presumably named after the equipment used to produce it) has a much more pronounced, rollicking rhythm to it and more discernible sense of momentum as well, pushed along by a sputtering, slightly out of tune melody and droning, ghostly background tones. The loud and more stereotypically techno track “Mumbly” features punchy, alarm-like keyboard tones, odd vocals samples, and a shuffling rhythm while the brief “Popeye” seems to be a snippet of a larger and decidedly gnarlier composition. Laid back but vaguely disquieting, “Fingertrips” combines ambient background chords with darker clangs of discordant noise elements, and “Revpok” is vintage, abrasive James acid house. All these pieces seem to be sonic experiments that would lead to the typically quirky brand of electro featured on Aphex Twin’s mid ‘90s albums I Care Because You Do (released in 1995) and The Richard D. James Album (from 1996), and as such, they’d be really interesting for fans who have often stood in awe of James’ compositional abilities. One can easily get an idea where tracks later James tracks like “Mookid,” “Alberto Balsam,” or even “Ventolin” (a track meant to simulate the feeling of an asthma attack) came from.

OK
So maybe not all of James’ music is warm and cuddly…

The second half of Caustic Window continues with the sort of “anything goes” electro heard on its first half: we have the short but aggressive “AFX Tribal Kik,” a track in “Airflow” that plays like a techno remix of an early ambient recording, and the chilled-out “Squidge in the Fridge” that’s driven by a looping, squelchy tone, warm backing tones, and a relaxed beat. “Fingry” may be the perfect example of James’ usual compositional style since it transitions from a opening which establishes harsh rhythm elements into a sweeping ambient section and finally unleashes a strange and inhospitable tangle of warbling bass and drum accents that seem designed to throw a listener off. Many of James’ compositions seem to work in this manner, demonstrating different, more creative ways in which electronic elements can be utilized. Burpy low tones and skittering rhythms give life to the elevator music melody in “Jazzphase,” and the lengthy “101 Rainbows Ambient Mix” showcases a crisp, almost mechanized rhythm and airy melodies galore: a very calming piece that may be my favorite here. The album starts to wind down with two more harsh, noise-driven pieces in the crackly “Phlaps” and evil-sounding, nearly diarrhetic drum and bass of “Cunt,” before ending with a two-minute track of prank phone calls. These ending tracks seem a somewhat strange conclusion to this record since they stand in opposition to the more easy-to-listen-to pieces occurring earlier on the album, but no one ever said Richard James played by the rules.

electro
Considering how much the world of electro (and music in general) has changed in the last decade, I’m interested to hear James’ new album, due in September

Honestly, the best thing about the Caustic Window LP is that its creator hadn’t released any new music for years prior to this album finding its way into the world. In 1994, this follow-up to the Selected Ambient Works albums would have been a curiosity piece at best – it really doesn’t compare to the mind-expanding pieces that featured on James’ two ambient albums. Twenty years later, Caustic Window is positively unique and a reminder of just what the world of electronic music has been missing for the past decade-plus. In an era where the world of electro seems to latch onto a new sound every other week, this album is like stumbling into an old friend you forgot you had, offering a refreshing and invigorating alternative to what’s typically heard in today’s day and age. Caustic Window is definitely not the best nor my favorite recording from Richard D. James, but that doesn’t mean by any stretch that it’s not worthwhile. It ain’t dubstep and it’s not entirely what fans of modern electro might want, but this album (which is about a must for fans of Aphex Twin) might just show modern electronic artists a different (and possibly better) way of doing things.

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Noise Meets Hip-Hop in Clipping’s Major Label Debut: clppng

clppng by Clipping

(3/5)

Pros: Very unique approach; strong vocal performance and prodcution

Cons: Lyrical content didn’t seem all that different from dozens of other rap artists

Showcasing motor-mouthed rap blasts heard over screechy and scratchy noise and sporadic instances of rhythm and melody, Los Angeles’ Clipping may be one of the most unique groups currently working in the hip hop scene. MC Daveed Diggs’ vocals more often resemble an intense spoken word performance than the typical rap vocal part, and (music) producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes provide some of the most strange musical/sound accompaniment a listener would ever hope to hear in a hip hop-type track. These two previously were known for their work in the power electronics scene (which, to most people, would sound like straight-up, nearly unbearable noise), and though they’ve somewhat toned down the excess of their experimentation for the Clipping project, the end result is that this group sounds like no other rap artist I can readily think of, sounding vastly different from what most people would be accustomed to or honestly, would have an interest in listening to.

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Typically mysterious publicity photo.

Clipping debuted in 2013 with an independently produced and released album called . This work established the group’s basic sound, unleashing furious verbal assaults and ear-splitting sonic experimentation. Shortly after midcity’s release, Clipping signed to the venerable Sub Pop label (perhaps known more for their indie rock and grunge releases – the label was the first place Nirvana landed in the late 1980s – though they’ve built up a solid repertoire of hip hop groups as of late) and set about work on their major label debut. Produced and released less than a year later, 2014’s clppng signaled a slight change in the group’s aesthetic. I’d almost be inclined to say that Clipping have become slightly more accessible on their 2014 release: there’s more here than was on their debut album that I could definitively label as being somewhat tolerable to mainstream hip-hop/rap music fans. That said, clppng still numerous some definitive weirdo moments and elements – it’s generally extremely minimalistic and has not on one thing that I would remotely declare as being “catchy.”

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The group at work.

In reviewing midcity, I pointed out that one of my major issues with the release was that although Clipping had a distinctive sound, it was disappointing to me that Diggs and the gaggle of guest vocal performers seemed to utilize the same sorts of subject matter that the majority of today’s rap artists focus on. Namely, the album was overloaded with profanity, crude sexual content, drug references and violent imagery: not for the faint of heart.  I can appreciate music that’s hostile for the point of getting a message across (after all, older hip hop and rap artists used this technique to express frustration with the world around them) but I don’t typically get into more modern hip hop that just seems to be angry or downright violent just for the sake of being angry and violent. I’m also not at all a fan of rap that features the artists simply boasting about the things they’ve done or stuff they have. I guess my main feeling about Clipping is that for an group that (judging from the uniqueness of their sound) seems to be trying to do something legitimately different from the typical hip hop artist, I would have expected more from the lyrics here. There’s a definite “street poetry” to them, but the lyrics don’t strike me as making a grand statement: among other stanzas, the “twerk some girl…twerk some girl” chorus Diggs goes into during second track “Body and Blood” indicates to me that what we have here is the usual batch of sketchy club rap glitzed up in a shiny (and rather bizarre) new package.

album art
Artwork used on the group’s albums has a certain aesthetic to it.

Me not being the biggest fan of rap music in the first place and tending to like older hip hop artists a lot more than newer ones (part of the reason why I don’t listen to more of this music in general) might explain why I wasn’t overly enamored with the lyrics here. I can still respect Diggs’ ability to spit out concise rhymes at a pace that’s difficult to keep up with: the guy definitely has mic skills and his enthusiastic approach to the material meant I was generally intrigued by his rapping even if I didn’t completely appreciate its subject matter. What’s more likely to throw off the typical listener are the sound that accompany these vocals. Occasionally (like on the aforementioned, very dark-sounding “Body and Blood”) Hutson and Snipes craft sections with discernible, pounding rhythms, and there are even hints of melody in a few of the various tracks here. Individual sections of songs (the robust childrens’ chorus in “Dominoes,” the fluttering keyboard melody of “Tonight”) boast some fine, complex sound design but taken as a whole, clppng seems very sparse and almost barren – there aren’t many “hooks” to be found and the average track is made up mostly of seemingly unrelated sound effects. I really can’t fault the production on this album since Hutson and Snipes do a nice job of making oddly cohesive backing tracks out of this mess of sound elements. The alarm clock tones used to construct the instrumental back-up track in “Dream” is undeniably well-done and pretty clever, even if it is irritating to listen to – and maybe that fact sums up the album. Purposely harsh and abrasive, the music does frequently seem appropriate given the tone of Diggs’ rapping, but would appeal about nothing to most fans of modern hip hop…or most listeners period. My ultimate question is to inquire just what Clipping as a group are/were going for with their music – it wouldn’t (in my opinion) work in a club setting and I simply don’t think many people would honestly enjoy listening to this material. So what do we have here: the beginnings of the art rap movement?

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If I could label an audience for this release, it might be most appreciated by those who enjoy freeform poetry or spoken word: the “musical” elements here don’t add up to much, and mainly serve as an atmospheric backdrop for the vocal performances. Thus, the entire album is one that I don’t really see as having a ton of replay value even if some people might really get into and “feel” the lyrics here. I have a ton of respect for any musical artist willing to think outside the box: that’s ultimately how new and exciting music comes about, but at best, I’d have to label the Clipping project as being a flawed experiment. Granted, I think this flawed experiment has value (it’s certainly more interesting than many of the ridiculously generic and “vanilla” pop albums out there), but I could almost see it as being an “emperor’s new clothes” scenario in that people would rally behind this group just because it’s different, not necessarily because it’s outstanding. I’m giving clppng a middle-of-the-road rating: it may be worth listening to just for curiosity’s sake alone (maybe – just maybe – some people would really like it), but I personally wouldn’t classify this as being among the year’s best recordings.

“Body and Blood” Music Video –

CENSORED VERSION but still VERY NSFW!

Going Through La Dispute’s Distressing but Compelling ROOMS OF THE HOUSE

ROOMS OF THE HOUSE by La Dispute

(4.5/5)

Pros: Intense, harrowing, and captivating; excruciatingly well-performed

Cons: Emotionally devastating; some people might not appreciate the vocal work

Formed in 2004 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, La Dispute has been described as making music in any number of genres ranging from post-hardcore and screamo to progressive rock and even spoken word, and one thing a person can take away from that is the fact that this band has a unique sound compared with a lot of music out there. I’d be the first one to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with most of the bands that could be classified as being “screamo” groups – i.e. hard rock outfits perhaps most similar to either hardcore punk or even some heavy metal which features “emotional” lyrics that are (ferociously) screamed over the often-grinding instrumental parts. Many of these groups (such as Sonny Moore a.k.a. Skrillex’s first band From First to Last) just seem to grate on a listener’s nerves – they strike me simply as being obnoxious, not as having anything important to say. Personally, I’d typically prefer a noticeably more musical brand of emo music such as that made by groups like American Football, Owls, Mineral, or Sunny Day Real Estate.

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Funny how, I dunno, SUNNY this image of La Dispute is…

Having said all that, I can’t deny that La Dispute’s often jagged and jarring music is extremely compelling despite the fact that its quite harrowing and downright distressing to listen to. Made up of multi-instrumentalists Chad Sterenburg (who mainly does guitars), Adam Vass (mainly bass), and Brad Vander Lugt (drummer) who perform various instrumental parts and occasional backing vocals, the main focus of La Dispute’s music is the lead vocals of Jordan Dreyer. Dreyer’s performance during most of the band’s songs could perhaps most easily be labeled as being spoken word: he doesn’t so much sing his lines of lyrics as much as recite them at various levels of intensity, and his dynamic range is pretty incredible. The vocals literally can go from a whisper to a shout in seconds, and it appears that most of this is done “live,” not through production magic that enhances what Dreyer is doing on his own. Telling complicated, intensely personal stories, one can immediately determine that the lyrics of these songs have deep meaning to the vocalist, and I find myself getting wrapped up in the commanding poetry at work – Dreyer has been quoted as saying most of the inspiration for his lyrical style comes from classic literature instead of other musical groups – he’s listed, for instance, Dostoyevsky, Vonnegut, and Nabokov as influences.

appropriate
This band photo seems a bit more appropriate.

2014’s Rooms of the House, released on the band’s own Better Living label, is La Dispute’s third full-length release, following 2011’s powerful Wildlife. For me, Rooms sounds like a more mature effort than this group’s previously releases – it’s certainly less instinctively angry and aggressive than the band’s 2008 debut album – but a pervasive sense of misery and unease means that it probably won’t be to everyone’s taste. This downbeat mood is instantly apparent in opening track “Hudsonville, MI 1956,” which starts off with a unsettling, clanging guitar riff and quiet spoken word vocal. Though it’s easy to get caught up in the pounding musical accompaniment and rhythmic changes that hammer home certain lines of lyrics, if one focuses on the words, it appears to be about a furniture maker having a mental breakdown after his son and wife leave him alone in the titular town. Loaded with imagery that gets a listener into the mindset of this distraught character, parts of this song (such as a section where the lonely man goes down to the basement and examines his workbench) almost give me the chills. Second track “First Reaction After Falling Though the Ice” is sort of self-explanatory, but taken in context seems to be a reflection of the same man on the fact that he can no longer trust anything or anyone around him. Musically, this track is a bit more lively, though the chord progression still sounds plenty gloomy. Dreyer’s punctuated vocals, with sections suggesting both inner reflection and utter hopelessness, work perfectly in context, lining up at key moments with the outbursts of guitar and rhythm.

hardcore shows
Gotta love intimate venues.

“Woman (In Mirror)” offers a major change up to the intensity of the opening tracks, a more gentle piece with a throbbing bass drum beat and wispy electric guitar tune. Dreyer’s voice is more conversational here, and the lyrics discuss an (obviously long gone) love interest though the song is suggestive of a process of moving forward after feelings of heartbreak. “Scenes from Highways 1981-2009” has (as might be suggested by the title) a more prominent and energetic beat as it tells a genuinely epic tale of love and loss being recalled during a highway drive, while the somewhat unfortunately named “For Mayor of Splitsville” is actually more literate (and devastating) an examination of post-relationship mental states than one is likely to find in any dozen emo or screamo albums: a definitive bravura moment on an album that’s full of them.

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Probably one of the most amazing things about this album is the sheer amount of lyrics that are heard in the songs here. This album is only forty minutes and eleven tracks long, but Dreyer rips off lyrics in much the way one might expect a classic, motor-mouthed rap artist to. In an era where many artists seem to subscribe to the idea that less lyrics (or maybe I should say “more simple ones”) are the way to go, this band achieves a level of greatness by having descriptive and evocative lyrics that grab a listener by the collar and scream authenticity. It’s actually refreshing to listen to music like this in the context of banal popular music, and the sparse and flat-out haunting “35” is the perfect example of how attention-grabbing La Dispute’s music can be. The song is fairly simple compared to many here, but when a more calm Dreyer starts reciting a laundry list of middle-class worries while a gorgeous guitar duet strums in the background, this track achieves a startling, serene beauty that’s a sharp contrast to what most other post-hardcore bands are up to with their music.


Rooms of the House
works through a nice progression of tracks in its last five, with the more aggressive “Stay Happy There” (at times, the most loud and most “screamo” track here) leading into the somewhat sinister “The Child We Lost 1963” that reminds me a bit of Slint’s brand of unsettling indie rock. “Woman (Reading)” shuffles along to a faster tempo and has a calming effect on a listener at this point of the record – until a big moment of emotional release and collapse during the climax of the song. “Extraordinary Dinner Party” is a mostly pleasant recollection of a “snow day” and its seemingly trivial (or are they?) events and the melancholic closing track “Objects in Space” has the narrator lamenting over nostalgic objects laid out around an empty house following the conclusion of a relationship. Heard over a laid back brush-stroke drum beat and twangy guitar lick, the vocals here are very low-key and conversational; there’s no attempt to really “perform” the lyrics. Instead, the song plays like a poem being read rather unemotionally, which actually has the effect of making the track more poignant and affecting, forcing a listener to pay attention to what’s being said – and what’s left unsaid. Ultimately, this is an ideal, precisely understated way to end this emotionally-affecting album.

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Having been completely unfamiliar with La Dispute prior to listening to Rooms of the House, I’d have no problem calling this band one of my favorite musical discoveries of recent times – or calling this 2014 album one of the absolute best things I’ve heard this year. Though I was pretty big on emo and post-hardcore about ten years ago, I haven’t listened to much of this type of music recently and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this album. Many of today’s musical groups can come up with winning music that’s fun to listen to, but I’m much more appreciative of an album like this that’s more artistically-minded and emotionally satisfying. Rooms quite simply is superb from start to finish, standing as a definitive creative statement when taken as a whole. Though the music here is wonderfully performed, both in its louder moments and quieter ones, the lyrics and vocals of Jordan Dreyer are the star of the show. He’s a fantastic storyteller, and even though the themes discussed are very solemn and gloomy, I can’t help but be fascinated by the imagery and rich detail in his words. My highest recommendation; even if this album simply won’t be something everyone could get into, I’d advise interested listeners to give it a shot.

“For Mayor of Splitsville” Music Video:

Rock’n’Roll Terrorism: GG ALLIN TERROR IN AMERICA LIVE 1993

GG ALLIN AND THE MURDER JUNKIES: TERROR IN AMERICA LIVE 1993

(3.5/5)

Pros: Perhaps the best GG Allin live performance DVD

Cons: Sick, disgusting, violent, grimy to the extreme…makes me want to take a LOOOONNNNGGGGG shower.

NOTE: This review contains content that would be disturbing and disgusting to many people.

Regarded by many music publications as the most extreme, degenerate rock and roller who ever existed and perhaps best known for being the subject of the first documentary film by Todd Phillips (he of The Hangover and Old School fame), GG Allin is nothing if not positively notorious more than a decade after his death. Born Jesus Christ Allin to a reclusive and confrontational religious fanatic father and later renamed Kevin Michael Allin by his mother in an attempt to provide him with a normal social life once he entered grade school, GG Allin grew up a complete outsider in straight-and-narrow New Hampshire, eventually turning to rock and roll as an outlet for his pent-up frustration. In a career that spanned from the late 1970s until the early 1990s, Allin (in an self-proclaimed attempt to take rock and roll back to its roots and make it more “dangerous”) worked across nearly every music genre imaginable, ranging from country to classic rock, though his music is usually categorized as being of the punk rock genre. While pumping out innumerable, ridiculously obscene albums and singles of dubious (but sometimes surprising) quality, Allin amassed the world’s most cracked-out assortment of tattoos and also developed a cult following due to his unbelievably transgressive live shows that frequently involved nudity, self-mutilation, violent and sexual assaults on audience members, and yes, even coprophagia. Over the years, much has been made about whether or not Allin actually was nuts or if his whole show was an act – according to many people, Allin’s behavior offstage was quite different than the “rabid, caged animal” he portrayed during his live performances – but it’s hard to dispute the fact that GG Allin’s screwed up childhood had some influence on how he turned out later in life.

gg allin
Good thing this image is in black and white, right?

Circa 1993, Allin was coming off a fifteen month prison stint (a regular theme in his life) and had become increasingly popular in the rock and roll underground due to appearances on the Geraldo and Jerry Springer shows as well as being the subject of Todd Phillips’ exceedingly graphic Hated documentary. In April of that year, Allin and his band The Murder Junkies (made up of guitarist William Weber, brother Merle Allin on bass, and “naked drummer” Dino Sex) kicked off the so-called “Terror in America Tour,” which turned out to arguably be the most violent of Allin’s career. Numerous live GG Allin performance videos have been released over the years, chronicling both the early, less insane parts of his career as well as the infamous later period when Allin shows would be more shocking performance art rather than standard punk rock gigs. Music Video Distributors’ 2006 DVD GG Allin and the Murder Junkies: Terror in America Live 1993 features three complete shows from the spring and early summer of that year and captures Allin at his most aggressive and openly hostile. That said, this DVD is actually somewhat restrained when compared to the live show captured in the Hated documentary, or even some of the ones chronicled on the early Savage South and Raw, Brutal, Rough, and Bloody DVDs.

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Whoa!

Musically speaking, Terror in America has its ups and downs to say the least. By any standard (even among two chord, grinding punk rock bands), The Murder Junkies are undeniably lousy, arguably one of the worst bands ever to achieve any sort of notoriety as they stumble through songs with titles like “I Wanna Rape You,” “Expose Yourself to Kids,” and many more that I don’t even feel comfortable identifying in this review. Merle Allin’s bass playing is laughably bad as he endlessly cranks out two-note progressions and the utterly out-of-place William Weber (seriously – how does this seemingly straight-laced guy end up in this band?) just seems bored most of the time, as is evidenced by his technically acceptable but lazy guitar performance. As a point of comparison, The Dwarves (who during the 1980s were comparable to GG Allin in terms of their profane lyrical subject matter and outrageous live shows) seem like The Rolling Stones in terms of musical ability alone. Indisputably, a viewer wouldn’t approach this DVD for the chance to hear this frankly atrocious band play through their set though: they would want to see GG Allin do something outrageous and I think that crowd would certainly get their money’s worth.

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Terror in America kicks off with a 41(!) minute set from April 25, 1993 at The Fastlane in Asbury Park, NJ. This is easily the longest GG Allin set I’ve ever seen (the band even plays two encores!), and probably the best in terms of the performance. There’s a nice crowd on hand (this was the first show of the ‘93 tour), and Allin has some interesting interactions with them – it’s intriguing that he almost seems intimidated by some audience members and their questions. Listening to GG (appearing to be at his most cognizant and coherent during this show) awkwardly attempt to improvise “angry” responses to audience requests is suggestive of the fact that the whole “rock and roll animal” routine really was simply an act, though if that’s the case, it has to be one of the most futile expenditures of (literally) blood, sweat, and tears that’s ever been undertaken.

At any rate, the video quality during this performance is excellent by Allin show standards with a camera that’s actually fairly steady and that provides good views of the singer in action. Getting down to what GG fans would want to see, there is copious bloodshed and self-mutilation here (caused by what appears to be an empty beer can), fisticuffs with various audience members, a goofy tirade against the rock and roll establishment, and a few moments of full nudity. This last aspect is the thing that may be the one reason why GG Allin in my mind is almost a humorous sort of figure – it’s pretty funny (in a jaw-dropping, semi-pathetic/sad kind of way) to see this prototypical “violent thug” virtually assaulting the (rather courageous) women hanging around the stage and rowdy mosh pit crew alike while talking about how much he wants to rape people – then glimpse just how unimpressive the man’s “endowment” is. Yikes!

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Mugshot from one of Allin’s many arrests.

Next up, we have a much more extreme performance from May 15, 1993 at the Somber Reptile in Atlanta, GA (one has to wonder why any venue on earth would book this band for a show). This show lasts 29 minutes and is probably more typical of the outrageous behavior that would be seen at a GG show, with Allin spazzing out on stage while drinking Budweiser, setting his American flag loin cloth on fire, assaulting various women alongside the stage, and inserting both the microphone and an orange traffic cone into his anus. Classy stuff! Allin’s vocals here are more growly, the band seems to be in robotic “let’s just get paid” mode, and the camera work documenting the show is very manic. Finally, we have a show from the 5th Street Warehouse in Austin, TX on May 18, 1993. This 24 minute set is almost claustrophobic, with the camera almost on-top of Allin as he performs. Audience members during this show really heckle Allin during the show (leave it to Austin to produce some weirdos who would antagonize a loose cannon character like GG Allin…), and I’d probably declare this show to be the most violent of the three included here – GG literally is fighting somebody within 30 seconds of starting the first song. At one point, Allin beats a man over the head with the weighted end of a mic stand and winds up chucking a cymbal stand into the crowd at a few different times. The conclusion of this show very nearly disintegrates into a full-on riot, with a group of crowd members confronting an extremely hostile Allin.

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Dead.

Easily, the Atlanta and Austin shows are more typical of what fans would have come to expect from GG Allin and the shaky, gritty camera work only emphasizes the chaotic nature of the performances. I suppose I should point out that none of the shows included on this DVD feature any sort of “poop play,” which could be either a good or bad thing for any individual viewer – Allin was known for his tendency to defecate on stage and audience members grew to expect it as time went on. Scenes of Allin consuming or hurtling feces were some of the most insane (and unfortunately memorable) in the Hated documentary, and I suppose some people might be disappointed that we didn’t get more of the same in Terror in America.

For my money, even though Hated would be the ideal (and perhaps only) place for a person to start an examination into all things GG Allin, Terror in America may be the best GG Allin performance video that one could get. This program certainly provides a glimpse at why this man is still regarded as one of the most whacked-out “musicians” of all time and it’s not hard to believe after watching this DVD that he would be dead within about a month after the last of the shows here from a heroin overdose. The New Jersey show included also may be the single best, most coherent live performance from the man that I’ve ever seen, which is a definite bonus. As should be obvious, most people would have precisely no interest in watching this (or any) program related to GG Allin, but for Allin fans or the curious and extremely adventurous viewer, I’d give Terror in America a recommendation.


DVD from Music Video Distributors is full frame; decent video quality considering every here was filmed in the early 1990s on (now-ancient) camcorders. Two hour DVD includes several bonus footage segments, including Allin receiving a large head tattoo in a tattoo parlor (a contrast to the way in which he got most of his ink done…), footage from a pretty awful recording session done in early 1993, 15 minutes of somewhat amusing footage taken during a 1993 instore appearance in Hollywood in which GG signs autographs and talks to his fans, and a few minutes of candid footage from 1991 with GG hanging around the family pool. Interesting…


scary
10/10 : Extreme, real violence involving assaults on real people, actual self-mutilation, and very outrageous behavior. This program is not for the squeamish.


10/10 : Though the vocals during these shows are garbled, there’s a virtual truckload of profanity and obscenity heard during this program.


0/10 : Full nudity, but sweet Lord above I hope no one would get turned on by this…

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10/10 : Punk rock at its most transgressive and disgusting. Definitely, a cult item.


The mindset of a Murder Junkie: “Just play…who gives a fuck…it’s not like we have to sound good or anything…”

GG ALLIN ON GERALDO:

The Melancholic Classic Rock of The War on Drugs’ LOST IN THE DREAM

The War on Drugs : LOST IN THE DREAM

(4.5/5)

Pros: Classic rock sound and great songs

Cons: Second half of the album can’t quite keep pace with the spectacular first

Sounding somewhat like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers if that band had formed a decade or so later in the context of the shoegaze movement, Philadelphia, PA based band The War on Drugs have built a reputation for being perhaps one of the best contemporary groups utilizing familiar 1970s and early ‘80s classic rock formulas. Led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Adam Granduciel (who has gone on record stating that The War on Drugs is essentially his solo project), this music has a nostalgic warmness to it that one is unlikely to find outside of the classic rock genre, and I would identify most every song the group makes as being perfect “road music” due to the propulsive, unflinching rhythms pushing the tracks along.

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The band.

After 2011’s well-received Slave Ambient, Granduciel and company (namely multi-instrumentalists Dave Hartley, Robbie Bennett, and Charlie Hall) returned with 2014’s Lost in the Dream, an album that I’d have no problem calling one of the year’s absolute best recordings. Written about feelings of depression and loneliness experienced by Granduciel when he came back to everyday life following extensive touring through 2011-12, a melancholic tone permeates every track on this album which overflows with a sense of uncomfortable ennui. Despite the heaviness of the material though, it’s a rather inspiring record in that it’s suggestive of the fact that a person with perseverance can make it through any rough patch they face in life.

The album kicks off with “Under the Pressure,” a track which sums up the main ideas of the album quite well. Granduciel’s smoky but warm vocals essentially talk about disillusionment and a desire to break out from his everyday situation. The instrumental parts here are supremely calming even though the track constantly surges forward behind a driving rhythm. Like many of the tracks here, this opener (the album’s second single) is fairly lengthy at nearly nine minutes in length, but it never gets dull or boring; instead it builds in intensity over time, introducing wall of sound guitar and honky background saxophone bursts before a straight-up shoegaze finale of swirling ambient guitar tones. Second track “Red Eyes” was the lead single from the album and sounds quite a bit like Bruce Springsteen’s early ‘80s hits. The quiet verse sections here are contrasted by the loud chorus, and the track boasts another unflappable, infectious rhythm. As may be obvious by its title, “Suffering” ratchets the tempo down substantially in a song that’s lazy and more heartfelt, with resonant guitar chords and gorgeous warbly keyboard progressions making Granduciel’s lyrics hit home as he wonders about a loved one’s commitment level. Though it’s not my favorite track, this one pops up at the perfect point in the album, providing a counterpoint to the much more uptempo opening pair of tracks.

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At South by Southwest a few years back.

“An Ocean in Between” initially has a more mechanical sort of feel to it with its heavy, churning bass line and light drum beat, but it eventually works into a poignant finale of yearning lyrics and bravura guitar work. It’s really a credit to Granduciel’s talent as a songwriter that he allows many of these tracks to play well into the seven to eight minute range: instead of just going through the motions, throwing in a few gimmicks and wrapping things up, the songwriter allows these tracks to really develop into something triumphant and almost transcendent at times. Possibly the one true anomaly on the album, “Disappearing” has the feel of an slower, early 1980s synthesizer ballad, while “Eyes to the Wind” returns to the realm of pure Americana rock and is probably my favorite track here. Playing out to a sauntering tempo, it’s very pleasant sounding, with vocals that recall Bob Dylan (if Dylan had a better voice…). I also really like the lyrics here; it may be the track that best defines and expresses the main themes of the album as a whole. Following the sparse, appropriately-named instrumental “The Haunting Idle,” we get the energetic, Springsteen-influenced piece “Burning,” and the twangy title track before the album concludes with “In Reverse.” This finale starts off sounding kind of ghostly with more Dylanesque vocals, but eventually builds heads into another laid back rock song section, ending the album on an agreeable but appropriately apathetic note.

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This image felt appropriate here.

One of the best things about this album is its all-encompassing theme dealing with modern discontent (honestly, the album’s title and cover art are absolutely spot on). Lyrics throughout the album seem to have been written from the perspective of someone struggling to find meaning in their life, but Granduciel never resorts to making “woe is me” statements. Instead, he sort of works through these issues as the lyrics and songs progress, thus providing the listener with a perspective on how to make things work even when faced with intense personal dissatisfaction. All in all, it’s a remarkable, coherent work and a definitive artistic statement in an era when far too many musical groups simply pump out albums full of singles in an attempt to appeal to teenagers. Lost in the Dream seems to speak to an older, much more thoughtful listening audience, and I think it has appeal beyond the hipster crowd that usually latches onto this kind of indie rock album. For the fan of classic rock who doesn’t know where to even begin in the modern music scene, The War on Drugs would be an ideal place to start. Though it’s not particularly upbeat, Lost in the Dream is, in my opinion, inspiring and I’d give it my highest recommendation.

I’m a bit run down at the moment…

Perfect Pussy SAY YES TO LOVE and Hello! to Tinnitus

Perfect Pussy – SAY YES TO LOVE

(4/5)

Pros: Nice, appropriate mixture of live and studio tracks; ROCK’n’ROLL!

Cons: Iffy sound quality; Tinnitus!

It seems like the South By Southwest Music Festival, in recent years, has seen plenty of outrageously named bands show up, get notoriety based on their name alone, then wow audiences with killer live shows. In 2013, Nashville’s rowdy Diarrhea Planet did this exact thing, using the festival as a sort of spring board to build up a fan base. The following year saw Syracuse, NY based noise punk group Perfect Pussy stun audiences with their rambunctious live shows, then just days after the festival wrapped up, drop their debut full length record on the Captured Tracks label. Almost instantly, the band was (perhaps unsurprisingly) awarded a prized “Best New Music” designation on Pitchfork.com (arguably, the one website that has the most influence over “hip” music fans) and was well on their way to popular recognition. I could argue for days about whether or not Pitchfork is a good or a bad thing for the music industry since a good write-up on that site goes a long way, transporting bands that perhaps aren’t ready for the “big time” from bedrooms and basements to major music festival stages virtually overnight. That said, the fact that Pitchfork frequently does heap praise on musical projects deserving of those accolades makes it difficult to prove that their writing staff doesn’t – to an extent at least – know what they’re talking about.

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This location looks to be about the perfect venue for a live show from this band.

Perfect Pussy’s Say Yes to Love follows their twelve-minute long 2013 EP I Have Lost All Desire for Feeling, and very much continues down the path established on that release. What we have here is excruciatingly noisy but undeniably energetic punk rock complimented by the frequently indecipherable vocals by Meredith Graves. Graves typically screams the vocals into what almost sounds like an old telephone; her voice is often indistinguishable amongst the waves of shredding guitar and omnipresent, overwhelming distortion courtesy of Ray McAndrew. Throughout the album, Garrett Koloski takes out some serious aggression on his drum kit, though I like the churning feel many of these songs have when Koloski’s rhythms are combined with bassist Greg Ambler’s chunky tones.

Though these tunes are tailor made for being played in a packed punk rock club, many people simply would find this music headache-inducing.  The entire album (which runs a grand total of 23 minutes) is caked in recording hiss to the point that a listener almost needs a shovel to dig through it all. Say Yes to Love is also recorded very “hot” – most everything here is (overly) loud and the rough mixing doesn’t do much to separate the already chaotic sound elements from one another. Simply put, Say Yes to Love is noise rock through and through, and this genre simply isn’t to some people’s taste. At the same time though, it may go without saying that the aspects of the album that would drive some listeners nuts are the very same things that would “sell” it to others.

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Band publicity shot – about the BEST one could hope for when typing this band’s name into google…

Listening to Say Yes to Love, it struck me that this album plays very similarly to what I might expect from a two-sided vinyl release. The first seven tracks here are studio tracks that erupt with gnarly guitar tones, pulsating rhythms, and intense, screamed vocals. “Driver” takes a few seconds to get going, then assaults the listener with grinding guitar and vocal outbursts. This track almost reminds me of what would happen if the soundtrack to the Gun.smoke NES game was turned into a noise punk song, and after working through a couple verses, it ends in a cacophony of screechy guitar. “Bells” is perhaps even more jagged and jarring, the chugging guitar creating stop-start patches as Graves’s vocals shred apart. “Big Stars” and “Interference Fits” (tracks that play at a slightly slower -and therefore more restrained- tempos) run under two minutes in length a piece, and “Advance Upon the Real” finishes up what I would call the first half of the album with an out-of-control piece pushed along by machine-gun snare rolls.

Several minutes of silence and tape hiss lead into the quintet of live tracks; Graves’s declaration that “This is the longest set we’ve ever played…if I die, you guys can divvy up my shit” says all one needs to know and hints at the intensity level one gets here. Recording quality during these live tracks is even more tinny and distant sounding than was heard during the studio versions, with first number “VII” (in which Shaun Sutkus’s sludgy keyboard and growling distortion completely overpower Graves’ robotic vocals) probably being the only track here I’d definitively label as “noise” rather than a “song” of some sort. “Bells” careens forward with most of the instrumental parts buried under constant feedback screech, while “III” features more desperate-sounding Graves vocals emerging from chainsaw guitar tones and crackling percussion. The version of “Advance Upon the Real” is thunderous to the extreme; I almost have to wonder just what the hell was even happening with the levels on these live tracks since they vary so wildly from one to the next. Was this done purposely? Or simply the result of shoddy audio production (that actually seems somewhat appropriate)? Say Yes to Love finishes with a pummeling live cut of “I,” a track from the band’s initial EP release. This track throbs with devastating levels of howling bass, but I love the energy level.

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I suspect that some people might not be all that surprised to learn that Perfect Pussy started out as a joke and only started taking their music seriously when the players realized they were making some pretty cool tunes. To some, their debut album would be little more than sloppy, amateurish racket with a lot of downtime – silence plays almost a big a part on this album as the brutalizing noise. For the person familiar with noise rock of the Lightning Bolt variety however, the more song-like material on Say Yes to Love would make it a gratifying listening experience.  I suspect the ideal way to experience Perfect Pussy would be to see them live, but since this debut record combines studio and live recordings, it’s about as good as one is going to get without popping into the mosh pit himself. Say Yes to Love definitely won’t be to everyone’s taste due to the tinnitus-inducing “music” or frequent profanity, but I would recommend it for noise and/or punk rock enthusiasts.

PERFECT PUSSY AT NPR’s SXSW SHOWCASE
(NSFW – Language; EXTREME NOISE):