Sunday, March 05, 2023

12 Records for '22

This might be a more manageable list of records than I've written in years past, though my listening was no less wide-ranging. It might be a bit more honest, with the concision of its culling arrived at lazily, scrolling the automated iTunes playlist of 2022 records and either noting the amount of times I played it or thinking "oh, that was a good one." While a large amount of very good music came out this year, it felt maybe more than ever oriented towards the ephemeral, as if aware of how the constant release of new, very good, music creates a churn that makes every album feel meant for the moment, rather than the ages. Or else the fact that we all live in our own realities defines so much of the tenor of the times that no one could ever make a record that is in some way a "definitive record" of the year. This approach to music feels psychologically healthy, maybe even ancient: It's closer to live music's promise than investing in a record the qualities of a film or a novel, albeit in a time where "live music" feels like more of a delicate operation than it did pre-COVID, the recording stands as music's currency anyway.

So a review of the best music of the year should include the best shows I saw this year. I blessedly had a chance to see Jaimie Branch before she died. She played a solo set, relying on electronics, opening for her Fly Or Die quartet. I saw Rosali play a show with David Nance Group that was phenomenal. The Nance group backs her up on her last LP, and her forthcoming one as well -- Look out for the song "I Don't Want To Live Without You" when it drops, hearing it for the first time live it immediately felt like a hit. She played bass in the David Nance Group as well, effectively opening for herself. Both sets were so good I went to see the same people again the next night, at a gig where Rosali played lead guitar in Long Hots, her garage rock trio where the drummer sings. An insanely talented musician. I was very happy, brimming with joy, to see Fievel Is Glauque on a day in between their dates opening for Stereolab. (I am listening to their Audiotree session as I type this, the excitement of listening to their music keeping me from going to bed so I am granted the time for typing.) I saw a beautiful evening of music performed by the William Parker Heart Trio, that ended with Cooper-Moore talking about how many legends we lose every day, and so it's important we all share such moments together. Hamid Drake responded saying "You know, some mystics believe, and I believe, that since we're never really born, we never really die." It seemed like a morbid note to end on, although the recent loss of Jaimie Branch was still heavy on my mind, but then the very next day the world mourned the loss of Pharaoh Sanders together.

I also gotta mention going to see Stice and shooting the shit with Caroline Bennett after, really felt like I made a friend; going out of my way to see Myriam Gendron open for Godspeed You Black Emperor not knowing I would get the chance to see her at a much smaller venue months later, when she would complain about how the crowd at the bigger gig talked throughout her performance. Saw the longtime homies Ed Schrader's Music Beat open for Melt-Banana, saw Water From Your Eyes open for Palm, saw Aaron Dilloway in a basement, and afterwards was like "damn check out the Mary Hartman Mary Hartman bumper sticker" to a friend before noticing the Ohio plates and putting it together that it was of course Dilloway's car. But even this list is tainted by recency bias, I cannot really remember what music I saw in the early part of the year.

Also, I am just listing things. I write all of this feeling like writing about music is mostly uninteresting, or a waste of time, or I just don't want to do it, because I'm not particularly good at it. The people who write about music I most admire are not those who can expound at length, either parroting a press release or waxing pseudo-poetic, but those who can point in the direction of a record and with a few brief words of reference make it sound like the sort of thing I will like, if that is what indeed it is. In so doing, coming off as the sort of intellectually curious person worthy of listening to, due to their own willingness to listen deeply. If your taste overlaps at all with my own, just follow me on Bandcamp, where I have never once even attempted to write a blurb.

With that disclaimer, on to the records:

Weyes Blood - And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow. It's funny to read a New Yorker profile about someone coming from the noise scene that name-checks so many people I'm friends with and places I've been, in the interest of mythologizing a person I saw play many not-so-great shows, in the runup to the release of her record The Outside Room. This isn't a diss, that record blew me away, and making better records than one is able to perform live with a tape rig is one distinction between a pop songwriter and a noise act. As time has gone on, and associating Weyes Blood with the "noise scene" makes little sense, it is increasingly clear that she's making records for the ages, and nailing the vibe she's going for. I saw her perform with a full band early in 2023 and she was great, really drove home how she's got a lot of his now. This is a gorgeous soft rock tapestry, unfurling its melancholy through the halls of time.

Lucrecia Dalt - Ay! Lucrecia Dalt is the musician of year. In addition to this record, Lucrecia Dalt released two soundtracks this year, The Seed and The Baby, and they're both amazing, filled with varied miniatures of atmospheric dread and fast-moving arrangements. Her earlier records had this Badalamenti quality to them, and while this feels like a return to the poppy qualities of those after the minimalist abstraction of No Era Solida, the soundtracks have so much of their own character to them, reminding you her nostalgia is not for the standards of 1950s americana but the dance musics of Colombia.

Blanche Blanche Blanche - Fiscal, Remote, Distilled. Very happy that Fievel Is Glauque has introduced more people to the music of Zach Phillips. This record is essentially a re-recorded greatest hits of his earlier band and should provide a entry point to a very unwieldy yet rewarding discography. The arrangements sound fucking amazing, really just lovely stuff.

billy woods -Aethiopes. Woods is the best rapper out, and he made two records this year, this is the better one. Incredible writing, great production, I don't necessarily know how to talk about this stuff other than saying I spent a lot of time with it. The sort of listening that's driven by words and turns of phrase running through your head while just out walking around.

Brandon Seabrook - In The Swarm. Jazz of course exemplifies the spirit of constantly producing music, based on the joy of the circumstances of people being in a room. It is also the genre which requires the most actual working knowledge of music theory to write about well so I will make no such attempts, this felt sorta similar to that William Parker Mayan Space Station record. A little more rock-adjacent than jazz usually is, and therefore more noteworthy, even though I also loved the work of Janel Leppin, Patricia Brennan, Mary Halvorson, Ashley Paul, Mali Obomsawin, this one fits a different mood.

Eric Copeland & Josh Diamond - Riders On The Storm. Big fan of Eric Copeland, of the band Black Dice, whose solo releases vary a bit between sorta straightforward techno, weirder noise stuff, and sorta dumb deconstructed pop songs with a Ween vibe achieved through distorted vocals. I was saying this had a dubby vibe, my buddy Adam more accurately pegged it as techno with disco guitar. The guitar is presumably being played by Josh Diamond, of Gang Gang Dance, whose record God's Money is a classic, at least with the sort of people who obsessively keep up with Black Dice side-projects. Anyway this is a record that feels like it could be put on at backyard barbecues for years to come.

Panda Bear & Sonic Boom - Reset. A little unclear what Sonic Boom is bringing to the table here since this is really that classic Panda Bear shit, the best Animal Collective associated record in ages (although Time Skiffs, their record from this year, was not bad - it felt like a "return to form" on a cursory first listen and then I never went back to it.

Caterina Barbieri - Spirit Exit. An electronic/synthesizer records, vocals vocoded, feels psychedelic and huge, I don't know, Barbieri's great. Not sure what the vibe would be like live, if it would be a rave vibe or a church vibe but for the proponents of each either is a spiritual proposition, transcendent.

Empath - Visitor. Feel like, in the time since this band's last record, people have collectively realized that self-identifying as an empath is most likely the act of utterly deluded narcissists, "toxic" people. It's a lucky thing the band's rock music is aggressive and joyful in a way that seems aware of the irony. A Philly band, I checked this out and immediately regretted not attending their release show, a short walk from my house. I get psyched at the start of every new song like "oh, I love this one" even though the songs are not really that different from each other.

Anadol - Felicita. I cannot remember if I wrote up the first Anadol record when that came out a few years ago. Maybe not a far leap from the Lucrecia Dalt record, in its use of electronics to present a gently-swaying type of dance music indebted to Turkish folk music. Then a saxophone plays a solo and you forget what you're listening to even though it is still very good. There's a Don Cherry recording made with Jean Schwarz at the GRM that got released for the first time in early 2023 that combines his seventies world music approach to tape music and as that is like the perfect music to me I like this too.

Dividers - Crime Of Passion. And this is like a blown out and noisy take on American country stuff, I don't know, I am just trying to post this so I don't have to think about it anymore. The reason music writers put out their year-end lists early is because once the new year starts it's on into the future and one doesn't have the energy for retrospect any longer.

Bjork - Fossora. I was not someone who was particularly into Bjork during her nineties heyday. Beyond my Michel Gondry fandom, the voice was an impediment into me getting her, but in the past few years, with enough people vouching, I got into the classics enough that I gave the new one a listen and was blown away by how crazy it was. I should spend more time with this, it feels like a serious work of art.

This is all just listing "new albums," rather than box sets/reissues - I ran out and bought a copy of that 3-CD PJ Harvey B-sides compilation as soon as I learned it existed, which was pretty late due to its major label release precluding a Bandcamp page and the attendant notifications. The archival release of Cheri Knight's American Rituals made me as proud to have gone to The Evergreen State College as a screening of Steve De Jarnatt's Miracle Mile. That Jill Kroesen reissue is super-interesting, I only wish there was an option where I could order a version of the "Stop Vicious Cycles" tank top for myself. I recommended that Ghost Riders compilation to pretty much every one, and it should be on the list if that's the point of making one. A lonely atmosphere captured from the most accessible materials imaginable.

Friday, May 13, 2022

My Friend Alex

 I am very proud and happy for my friend Alex Tripp, who is coming out as trans and beginning a regimen of hormone replacement therapy. I have many times referred to Alex, conversationally, as my best friend, with occasional qualifiers of context like "who I met in college." We met when we were both eighteen, and we're both thirty-six now. That's half a lifetime. She's one of the people I met walking around the freshman dorm and looking at people's CD wallets, and immediately I was like "this person is cool." In sophomore year, when Netflix started, she'd rip DVDs and burn DVD-Rs and fill another wallet up with them. We watched a ton of movies together, hung out with a great many of the same people, listened to a lot of music, christened a house we moved into by playing Lightning Bolt's Wonderful Rainbow on the record player. We would run errands together, as neither of us drove, keeping each other company on bus trips out to neighboring towns to pick up packages that FedEx failed to deliver. We would chat on messaging services. I was weirdly moved when I realized Alex was the first person other than my mom that would end a conversation with me with "goodnight." That was in Freshman year, before we lived together. We shared bedroom walls for three years, essentially.

 I don't wish to seem like I am writing a eulogy where I am mourning a person I thought I knew. Rather I want to put across that while I felt like we talked about everything in our heads, just by virtue of sheer proximity, I didn't know about her gender dysphoria. This isn't to say I view this secret as a betrayal: Rather it's a revelation of the most basic "you don't know what another person is experiencing" common sense sort.

It's radicalizing to realize someone you love is a part of a population that you maybe previously held up to an intellectual distance. Like, if you'd asked me a few months ago for my "take" on the "trans controversy" I would've said: I think transgenderism's surge in popularity over the past few years is just the latest subculture, which always has an element of breaking from gender norms. Hippies had long hair, women in British punk bands would talk about how Johnny Rotten was empowering because he had an androgynous quality. Nowadays I think kids are just incredibly literal, so. The point of this take is meant to be "it's fine, more power to them, only losers get upset by a youth subculture" -- and while I don't think this "take" is WRONG necessarily, I now feel more like: Why the fuck do you need to have a take, to stroke your chin and pontificate?

We met at an ostensibly very liberal college, and Alex didn't feel comfortable coming out then, and who knows how much stupid shit I or my friends have said, either in the spirit of jest or pseudo-intellectualism? Our cohort wasn't a particularly macho group, and while the school didn't have fraternities or anything, it was segregated along gender lines just in basic terms of housing. While outward homophobia would certainly be called out, heteronormativity was nonetheless the order of the day. I apologize now for any dumb shit I have said that I don't remember saying.

However, over the course of our friendship, it became clear I had a much better memory than Alex did, and so I want to remember things that she may have forgotten, because they take on new resonance to me now: The first time I took acid, Alex was essentially my babysitter, bearing witness to me going a little bit crazy, doing some babbling. Of course, in my own head, there was a moment where I thought Alex's laughter was from her being a more ascended Godlike being, already an initiate into the wisdom psychedelics bring, but that's not the part I wish to recall. Rather I remember, coming down, after feeling like I'd entered into higher dimensions of greater complexity, feeling like I'd made a wrong turn in the corridors of different consciousness, to be once more in my body, in the realm of our shared living room, making a joke I thought would amuse Alex, "when did I lose genders?" thinking of us as no longer living in a world or gender difference and all its myriad pleasures.

This joke hits different now. So too do a bunch of personality traits of the "maybe that's gender dysphoria, maybe that's just Alex" variety: The disinterest in memory, for one, and its attendant explanations: the love for smoking weed I didn't share, the fondness for DXM's disassociative properties that made it a favorite drug. I want to see selfies documenting the changes in Alex's physical appearance, but she, like me, never liked being photographed. All her images uploaded online had her features distorted or otherwise obscured. In college Alex would tap her breastbone and it would emit this hollow sound, a bodily anomaly that would be touched on with the disclaimer offered that she did not expect to live to thirty. There has always been a streak of apocalyptic thinking and occasional nihilism running through my circle of friends. This comment now feels reframed, to refer to the high rates of suicide among transgender youth.

I'm so glad we're still alive, undertaking new experiences and continuing to grow. That's my sister. I would die for her.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Top Books Of Recent Years

In the past I've done brief write-ups of all the books I read in the period of time since my last set of write-ups, and that slowly became too exhausting to contemplate, so I am not going to attempt that again. I did want to mention books that were new, at least, so here's the list of my favorite books released in the past two years. My attention span was sort of fried by the COVID era and I found reading older books often incredibly difficult. By only talking about newer books, this should also function as something of a top ten for the year, though it runs a little long, and includes books published in 2020, as I find the hardcover format gross and often find myself waiting for copies of books to become available at the library. Some are works in translation that are older still. These days, with film in particular, any "best of the year" seems provisional or else false, as many of the best works are on the festival circuit and do not receive much in the way of a real release; discussing books in an honest way that doesn't favor the publicity cycles of major publishers means accounting for work others read earlier.

When We Cease To Understand The World by Benjamin Labatut. Part of my affection for this book surely comes from how it does something interesting with the essay form without including the personal: The first chapter is sort of like Patrik Ourednik's Europeana in the way it lays out information to make a far-reaching point. A note in the back says that chapter contains only one paragraph of fiction, which the subsequent pieces increase, but as a reader I appreciate feeling that the point being made is rooted in the real. The whole book, with its cast of historical scientists being bedeviled by the elusive truths they pursue, is the sort of shit I'm into. A bunch of people are saying this book is good, I'm not riding for any obscurities here. I only wish the NYRB edition made some slight edits to the British spellings of an earlier publication.

Hollow by B Catling. This is historical fantasy, blurbed by Alan Moore, released straight to paperback by Vintage, though Catling has had two books printed by a smaller British press since his Vorrh trilogy concluded. My friend Adam, who says Catling is maybe his favorite living male writer of fiction, says those books were good but it makes sense this is the one a major publisher would bring out. It involves monks and mercenaries and a breakdown of reality as demonic creatures created by Bosch for his paintings emerge into the real world. The Vorrh books also included historical personages -- Raymond Roussel, William Blake -- and here the presence of Bosch's work allows for some neat bits of art criticism. This is an immersive, engaging read I read on a bus and liked a lot. I feel like most of the smartest people I know IRL that are fun to talk to definitely prefer genre writing to the sort of literature that gets talked about in Harper's, which makes sense, because Harper's is increasingly an awful magazine, a legacy publication steered by an old reactionary. 

I bring this up by way of getting into a digression about how a piece Christian Lorentzen wrote about how smart people learn about books from book critics was completely full of shit self-congratulation from someone who should know he works in a dying field and no one cares about what he does, but seriously: No one finds out about books from book criticism, book critics are largely obligated to all talk about the same high-profile releases from big five publishers that have enough of a promotional push a reader could just as easily find out about them by walking into any bookstore. I have another digression about the cultural discussion of books coming further down the list.

Harrow by Joy Williams. I realized this year that "environmental collapse" is the ideal literary subject matter for our era, both because it is the crisis we face that supersedes all others, but also because "environment" is a synonym for "context," and "context collapse" is also one of the conditions we face. A place of context collapse is also where Joy Williams' characters gnomic dialogue seems to emerge from, these issuances that have nothing to do with conversation as generally practiced. This book strikes me as "late style" for Williams, which I don't think reviews addressed. It's really weird, and while I enjoyed it a lot, it's probably closer to The Changeling than any of her other books, and while that may be my favorite of hers, that's not a popular opinion. I really enjoyed a large amount of stuff on pretty much every page, although the ending is particularly cryptic. Maybe I did myself a disservice by rushing it. I justified the expense of buying this in hardcover by giving it as a gift to a friend for her birthday, and I look forward to buying a paperback for myself to reread in a year's time.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Very funny, very insightful, and made me cry. Do I think it's weird to call this a novel when it takes it as a given you know all the characters from Lockwood's memoir? Yes. But I read an early draft of some of the material talking about the internet, presented as an essay and that blew me away, and the form of a novel can include all the weird shit it wants. Lockwood's almost certainly the best writer of my generational cohort, and her wide acclaim is both well-deserved and feels borderline inexplicable in terms of how hard it is to imagine older people making sense of her argot. But, for the record, this is what it's like, to be alive and engaging with the internet! It's weird too that she'll talk about reading the writing of Lisa Carver and a few other people she doesn't refer to by name. It's almost like within the world of the book, writers who know what the internet is don't have names, their essence is just an utterance of this larger supercontext, but that might not be as hard and fast rule in the way I'm describing it. The book also moves away from the internet talk into discussion of the tragic and holy, which could be what people who find the talk of memes baffling respond to; Lockwood's register can encompass everything.

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin. There are popular books about the internet that are either autofiction or close relatives to it, but Schweblin avoids these forms to come to an understanding of what the internet actually is that seems far more accurate: It's a system of mass surveillance that allows people to be voyeurs, and then feel connected through that. This novel employs what would be a science fiction conceit if the technology didn't 100% exist right now. This seems maybe the best way to address one of the defining elements of reality today, and of course, as the nineties predicted, it's a collection of different narratives with no real main character. I liked this more than Fever Dream, the author's novella from a few years back that received some acclaim.

Death In Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh. This is probably Moshfegh's best book to date. An old woman encounters something inexplicable, and makes up a world she projects onto her surroundings accordingly. Obviously, this is a potent metaphor for what's going on in the world, but it never presents itself as such, instead just being a very old-fashioned dark comedy about a person who has to go to the library to look up what's happening.

The Glassy Burning Floor Of Hell by Brian Evenson. A new collection by the contemporary master of horror short stories. This earned an endorsement from R.L. Stine on Twitter, which is funny. Back cover copy tries to make it seems like this is mostly about ecological horror, which is not true. I'm pretty sure one of the stories in here directly connects to Evenson's novel Immobility.

Eleven Sooty Dreams by Manuela Draeger. I am on the record as being a fan of the French author Antoine Volodine, who has a very weird project, where that name is a heteronym, and he has others, one of which is Manuela Draeger, who sometimes appears as a character in books credited to Volodine. Draeger's In The Time Of The Blue Ball, published in the U.S. by Dorothy, A Publishing Project, is a pretty whimsical collection of three short stories (which are individual books in a series for children in France), and is a very intriguing introduction to the whole project in itself. This book is Draeger's first book for adults, and while there's still some whimsy to it, it gets closer to the Volodine subject matter of failed leftist revolutions and Bardo states between life and death. Honestly I've already forgotten most of the details but this is a good one. That I'm forgetting it probably has something to do with its dreaminess, which is a feature not a bug, as they say.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor. We love a descent into hell that doubles as social realism, right? This one begins with the discovery of a dead witch, and each chapter expands the purview of what's going on, to include more darkness as it reveals more plot detail. I realized a lot of New Directions books don't have any plot -- Their biggest hit in the nineties was Sebald, after all -- but this one does. Have since grabbed an Anna Seghers collection NYRB Classics issued in part because Melchor had a blurb on the back, but I wasn't able to find my way into that one at all.

Machines In The Head by Anna Kavan. This is an NYRB Classics collection of an author I already knew I loved. This is a "selected stories" that includes stuff from books I've already read, but the selections are well-chosen, and the pieces I hadn't read before are good. If you just read this and the recent Penguin edition of Ice, (and I highly highly recommend you read Ice if you haven't yet) that's maybe a better approach than tracking down a bunch of books published in England by Peter Owen.

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler. Oyler's a fun critic, appreciated by all for her willingness to talk shit. That no one talked shit on this book was taken as an indicator that she wrote a really great book, but really the book's flaws are pretty evident. It's willing to be tedious in its scene-setting for the sake of mimetic detail, to increase the reader's sense that what they're reading must've really happened. Book people are maybe just willing to let her be the mean one, and look on admiringly from their positions of cowardice. The authorial voice of this book is an extension of her critical persona, and while I find that voice an amiable companion, it seems that readers forgive these excesses because they're so self-consciously presented, which is not the same thing as a book being without flaws. It's enjoyable enough, some of the jokes are funny, she knows what she's doing.

There was this "what do you want to see more of in books" survey at, I want to say The Rumpus, from which an Ottessa Moshfegh quote (about wanting less prescribed morality) went briefly viral. One of the people solicited for an opinion was Emily Gould, who said she wanted more examples of authors having fun, citing Oyler's "Middle Section (Nothing Happens)" heading as something she liked a lot and found delightful for its indulgent play with form, instead of a straightforward seriousness. I just want to say, if that's what you're seeking out, you should try reading a comic book, cartoonists make these kinds of throwaway jokes all the time.

Slapstick by Pete Toms. Pete Toms is a cartoonist, and we follow each other on Letterboxd, and he self-released this book digitally. It's a "comic novel," in the sense of being funny, but it's all prose, aside from its cover he drew. I like a little more linguistic bravado but it's pretty clear he's going for jokes and laying out everything in as straightforward a manner as possible. Anyway you can pay $3 to download this inventive collection of goofs. This list is short on obscurities if you're a book person, so if you're a book person who's heard of everything here throw this man a bone and get some laughs. People are writing work that reflects virtues totally absent in mainstream literature publishing, and then they have to self-publish it, because work that's accessible and entertaining and interesting isn't seen as viable by major houses, nor does it fit in with the tightly-defined aesthetic preferences of small publishers.

Vernon Subutex 2 and 3 by Virginie Despentes. I have mixed feelings as to whether these books are good or not, since on a level of language, the writing is incredibly simplistic and prone to cliche. This allows the books to read quickly, and keep their focus on characterization, and the movement between disparate characters to show how they view and interpret one another is pretty clever and insightful stuff. The books do not hesitate to discuss their characters and politics, many of which are aging men who've become increasingly right-wing. There are plot elements and movements towards the magical which reinforce the corniness of the prose and make me self-conscious about recommending it or considering it good.

One thing that's interesting about the books is that, after all of the groundwork laid, treating the characters' attitudes as this background radiation, the third book not only involves frequent mention of terrorist attacks, and captures 2016 as a cascade of rock star deaths, it ends with, and this is a massive spoiler, a mass shooting killing off almost all of the book's major and minor characters. This made me think of how Michael Chabon and his wife were supposedly going to adapt an article about the Ghost Ship fire into a TV show, and got shouted down by the community of survivors. I remember, when that happened, thinking "That just isn't how TV works. The tragedy of mass death, of people who know each other tangentially, and many of them are inspiring and lively, and then they just die in a fire, that's not television, that's not how narrative works." It's fascinating to me that these books do the work of having their narrative work in exactly that way, and not only have they been adapted into a French television series, but within the narrative of the books the tragedy gets turned into a television series courtesy of one of the people who set the tragedy in motion capitalizing on it. I'm willing to give Despentes credit for the commentary being pointed, partly because the whole series begins almost as a riposte to High Fidelity, with a Gen-X-er's record store going out of business and leaving him adrift in the world. For as much as I find off-putting about these books, it does seem to be in service to a vision and perspective I find valuable.

I Wished by Dennis Cooper. George Miles, the inspiration for a five-novel cycle of Cooper's, gets another book from Cooper where he tries to lay out what's special and important about this boy he knew who died, with a bit less transgressive violent sexual content than in the earlier books (though there remains a scene of parental sexual abuse, and it's a little unclear to me if this is being presented as something the real George Miles experienced). The best parts of this book are incredibly gentle, though it still kind of feels like a digestif for those who've read a bunch of Cooper's other books rather than an accessible introduction to an intimidating body of work.

I'm not going to list other books I read and felt more ambivalent towards. I wish I'd gotten around to reading Garielle Lutz's Worsted and Atticus Lish's The War For Gloria. The Lish should show up at the library one of these days, a friend has a copy of the Lutz I can probably borrow. I'm not claiming to have a great handle on the world of books, this is more of an accounting of the work I already knew to pay attention to than anything else.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

Favorite records of the second half of 2021

Rather than doing a firm "best records of 2021" post, consider this the continuation of a list I began in the middle of the year. Again, I'm not necessarily trying to offer a firm or definitive ranking, as the fact that I'm not reshuffling those earlier entries among these for a definitive numbered order should indicate. There are small sub-sections based around genre for the sake of aiding a reader trying to understand what parts of this list they will agree with enough to explore further.

However, right up top, before discussing anything else, I have to acknowledge an archival release, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme Live In Seattle. It might be easy to lose track of how good John Coltrane is, if you live in record-collector-head-land, where obscurity is a virtue. If you're used to appreciating tapes released by Alice Coltrane during her ashram days, being reminded of the monumental quality of A Love Supreme takes a different set of ears, almost. Like, by being attuned to the small and quiet, the large and forthright announces itself in such a way that you don't feel the need to engage with it. The way jazz works within the moment so often resists the album statement that the existence of a great album, while it might be useful to the uninitiated, almost seems besides the point. Recasting A Love Supreme as something more far out, one is reminded of some very fundamental truths about the power of music. 

I hesitate to use language to characterize any of those powers, besides to suggest that they're beyond genre, as the rest of the list should indicate.

Lil Ugly Mane - Volcanic Bird Enemy And The Voiced Concern. Totally different sound and vibe than what listeners have come to expect from this artist, coming closer to trip-hop or nineties alt-rock. It's interesting that these influences come from roughly the same chronological period as the Memphis rap sounds on Mista Thug Isolation, like the idea of "progression" as a linear path is being resisted, in favor of a sideways or serpentine movement. I get why people are disappointed in this or didn't vibe with it, as it forsakes impressive technical rapping and storytelling for an almost sentimental approach that always defuses itself with irony, self-loathing, and aggression, but for me it's a very comforting record.

NTsKI - Orca. I am not familiar enough with contemporary J-pop to say how close or how distant this is from the genre's mainstream. I know Miharu Koshi, who gets a song from the eighties covered here. There's an atmosphere being conjured here, and it's immaculate. The attention to production detail that's a hallmark of the Orange Milk label is present, though this is certainly more accessible than most of what they release.

Damiana - Vines. Whitney Johnson from Matchess/Simulation, in a duo with Natalie from TALSounds/Good Willsmith. One thing I hope to never do again is livestream a concert, an entertainment option that emerged over quarantine. However, one of the best sets I saw in this genre was performed by Damiana -- not even in the same room, rather, the two of them had separately recorded music they imagined would sound good with what they thought the other person would do. Obviously this is more doable when you are doing sort of droney/loop-based stuff than any other kind of music, but still the fact that it succeeded so well seems to suggest a telepathic bond between the two ladies. Both play as backing band on the new Brett Naucke record (which I have no strong feelings on), as well as...

Circuit Des Yeux -io. I almost went up to New York for the record release show for this album, but couldn't find a place to stay or another person who would want to go. Anyway, I did a lot of explaining what this music is like, in a way I thought would intrigue the uninitiated. An artsy balladeer, sorta like Scott Walker, voice sorta like Weyes Blood. It was the record label Unseen Worlds (on Twitter) that compared this record to Portishead's Third which is maybe the best comparison point though. The show would've featured orchestral arrangements and probably would've been sick as hell.

Sylvie Courvoisier/Mary Halvorson - Searching For The Disappeared Hour. Piano and guitar duets by two of the best in the game, fully adept band leaders on their respective instruments. I don't really have the time for solo instrumental records but a duo twisting shapes atop each other really engages close listening.

Don Cherry - The Summer House Sessions and Organic Music Theatre. Two more archival releases, coinciding with an exhibit of Moki Cherry's visual art at Blank Forms I regret not making it up to. (I was supposed to go with friends, plans fell through.) Don Cherry's music in this era is some of my favorite music of all time, and these two records, from 1968 and 1972, delineate that Cherry was moving so much in his own direction it's not really fair to characterize these works as being from the same era. Both approach the late-sixties communal utopia ideal in different ways. In 1968 he's stepping beyond "free jazz" to create a global music, and in 1972 he's gone several steps beyond that, to something closer to a folk music that's not beholden to a particular skill level but is incredibly moving. There's a handful of jazz musicians who have worked in radically different contexts and redefined genres through their sensibility a handful of times. It speaks to an openness and vision which is instructive and inspiring, and I'm truly grateful for works like this, that both fill in the portrait of a man now deceased and point to still unexplored landscapes.

Artifacts - ...And Then There's This. Great jazz trio, featuring Tomeka Reid on cello and Nicole Mitchell on flute. Mike Reed plays drums. The drumming is so restrained as opposed to most jazz drumming, which I often find a bit much. Mitchell is an incredible flautist, which maybe gets lost when she's leading big bands through concept albums about Octavia Butler. I love Tomeka Reid in most contexts, a student of Abdul Wadud who seems specifically interested in the in-the-pocket grooving of his work on the first two Julius Hemphill records, she holds down the lower end like Charles Mingus while also positioning the work in this chamber music space. The combination of restraint and melody makes me hear it almost like rap instrumentals or something, like the space being created is open to wherever your imagination wants to take you. Other tight records to be put out by Astral Spirits this year include Strictly Missionary's Heisse Scheisse. I interpret the band name as a Black Eyes reference, which it probably isn't, but they work a sort of jazz-funk-rock register with Wendy Eisenberg on guitar and it's not completely impossible one or two people in the mix might be fans of the weirdest band ever signed to Dischord. I also liked Equipment Pointed Ankh's Without Human Permission, which was co-released by Sophomore Lounge, and features Chris Bush from Caboladies, members of Tropical Trash and State Champion, and Shutaro Noguchi, who put out a proggish ECM meets indie rock solo record on Feeding Tube a few years back. That's from a sub-imprint of Astral Spirits that handles non-jazz, as the presence of synth and persistently rockish drumming marks it maybe a little bit closer to an instrumentals-only Faust or something.

Black Dice - Mod Prog Sic. One of my favorite bands, who are not just a "they need no introduction" proposition,  but actually an oft-returned-to reference point for the type of noise I like, that which does not present its overpowering qualities in monochrome black, but in variegated bright collage palette. They played a show in Philly I actually did go to, and while it is sad/weird/unsurprising they are still raging and playing incredible dance music while their audience is mostly men now aged and self-conscious to a point where they no longer elect to engage the music physically, the band themselves are doing all the right things, in an unforgiving culture of listening.

Hairbrushing - Unlisted Natural. One of the best solo "noise" or synthesizer records from an act previously unknown to me I've heard in quite some time. Not really sure how to be articulate about it besides saying it sounds like there's more than one person playing! And while there are guests it's not specifically on the tracks where they're present this effect takes place. How about: Like if Black Dice's "Beaches And Canyons" went spelunking instead. Or I think of a lot of these sounds as emanating from electrified slinkies, or microphones in the beaters of a stand mixer. Hailing from Louisville, much like Equipment Pointed Ankh, whose record this exists in the same universe as. I should also point out the new Olivia Block record, which I've only just begun spending time with but really enjoy.

Heta Bilaletdin - Nauhoi. It's easy to forget about Fonal records, and their documentation of Finland's psychedelic music scene, because so much of the work they release is of a high quality, but it exists in a world all of its own. This record, with its bubbling electronics, rich with rhythm and incident, is continually a "what am I listening to again?" experience. I'm not sure if the vocals on this are singing words in a language I don't understand or if they're genuinely wordless, or if they're electronically processed and cut up in a way where they'll deliberately unintelligible. There's a mystery to it certainly but it never becomes completely abstract, always remains rooted in the fundamentally approachable. Sort of comparable to those algorithmically generated images that look like photos of a living room that are slightly blurry that on closer inspection don't show any recognizable objects, but if they were a real space you could hang out in and have an OK time.

Stice - Satyricon. Duo of electronic production and vocalist, a la VVAQRT, but far more antic, both musically, and in terms of the performance style of the vocals. Songs are short, somewhat aggressive, but moving through a lot of territory - Maybe the most relevant reference point I can drop is that the vocalist was once romantically involved with and in a band with Machine Girl. I bought this in part because it came with a minicomic that's an illustrated lyrics sheet. Lyrics discuss piss, cum, shit, etc. Wire's "Mr. Suit" is momentarily interpolated, maybe accidentally. There is a sort of cultivated obnoxiousness to this that I can imagine aging poorly but I had these songs and their plentiful hooks running through my head a lot.

Boldy James/The Alchemist - Bo Jackson. I listed the Armand Hammer record The Alchemist produced on my first half of the year list. I truly hate that I'm at a point of alienation or disinterest from rap where the stuff I like within the genre falls within such narrow parameters. The other rap I enjoyed (from Ka, Mach-Hommy, Benny The Butcher, the Aesop Rock/Blockhead collab) is all pretty close to this small spectrum where Griselda's on one side and Backwoodz is on the other. The exception being when I got excited about RX Nephew's ten-minute song "American tterroristt" and texted a bunch of friends about it. Maybe this is fine for a dude of my age and ethnic background, and at least I'm keeping track of rap by checking in with Passion Of The Weiss and not The Needle Drop. The rapping's good, the production's good.

King Woman - Celestial Blues. Others will call it doom metal, but to me this feels like the heavier end of nineties grunge, like Soundgarden or something, to me, but with a lady singing. I don't mind it though, I'm on board. Still others call it shoegaze, which the band objects to on a "there's just reverb on the vocals" basis. That does temper the occasional screaming.

The Body And Big Brave - Leaving None But Small Birds. Two of the only heavy bands I routinely engage with and enjoy, who both made their own records this year of note, make a collaborative record together, but in an unexpected twist, it's a folk record, bordering on the sort of thing you could imagine playing at a coffee shop. Goth-toned, crows on bare branches, vocals slightly shrill, rhythms the sound of drummers used to hitting hard.

Mega Bog - Life, And Another. I think I hung out with this lady in college a little bit? I might have given her my copy of the Bone omnibus. The person I'm thinking of was definitely better friends with my friend Evan, who has since gone on tours with Mega Bog. Anyway, I didn't keep in touch, she may not have been making music when I knew her, and the intervening years' earlier Mega Bog records didn't connect with me, (I definitely talked with Evan through her doing a a solo set until we were told specifically to stop) but for whatever reason this clicks. This has some orchestrations, but it remains rooted in a Slapp Happy fandom of the lowkey freakout.

Macie Stewart - Mouth Full Of Glass. You might know Macie from Ohmme, one of the best live indie rock acts currently around, or you might know the name from various improv contexts, like these weird Astral Spirits tapes in duo with Lia Kohl. This is an orchestrated indie folk tape, maybe not too far off from the Mega Bog record but a bit more inclined to the overtly pretty. Peaceful spring day music, with finger-picked guitar and the percussive qualities of hand on instrument captured with engaging daylight clarity.

Insides - Soft Bonds. Was unfamiliar with this band, who've been around for quite some time. Before Insides, they were two-thirds of a group called Earwig, who put out a record in the early nineties on a sub-imprint of 4AD designed for more abstract music. Pretty sure the two members are a couple, this record has a certain intimacy/sexiness to it, that seems rooted in the atmosphere of the winter... The feeling of being in bed with someone while a blizzard rages outside your windows. Skin-to-skin contact even when not actually fucking music. A record to turn to when you want to relax, that's also the threshold of a discography one can explore when one wants to hear new music that explores similar territory.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

The Discourse Is A Drug Dealer With a Stolen Script

 One of the things that sort of sneaks up on you over the course of aging is how many things of consequence could reasonably be a part of your past. The longer a life gets, the fuller it could have been. While in my early twenties I could make jokes premised on the presumed absurdity that I would have an ex-wife, or had formerly been addicted to heroin, nowadays enough time has elapsed in the course of my life to allow for any number of entanglements with consequences, and subsequent second acts. Anyone in their mid-thirties could be divorced a few times, have been a former child actor, lived abroad for several years, abandoned a successful career, had a serious medical scare, paid for an ex’s abortion, spent a stint in prison. It is actually rather odd to have not done any of these things, to exist in a state of ongoing youth, to have a simple biography whose narrative stretches cleanly and without digressions back to one’s childhood. This may not be that uncommon for others born around the same time I was.

It’s well-documented that, due to economic factors, the rituals of adulthood like home ownership and marriage are not being pursued with the same vigor by my cohort as they were by previous generations. Many things are avoided while pursuing the goal of making something of oneself.  It’s not unreasonable that many would find themselves in a protracted adolescence, hoping themselves to be at the beginning of a career in the arts or another competitive field. Still, the psychic energy intended to get one through a rough initial period at the outset of adulthood, becomes misshapen as people approach middle age. There is a willingness I see in people to take pointers on what’s cool and fashionable from those younger than them, not just in terms of styles of clothing or taste in music, but also taking pointers on philosophy or political outlook from those who’ve plainly had very little life experience. It strikes me as strange, though I know it stems from trying to navigate a world that favors the young and is attracted to their potential. Somewhere in the private mind must be an awkward reconciliation between a youthful posture and nostalgic melancholy for all that didn’t work out. You can see this emerge in the fixation some people have with their idyllic, well-supported youth as the moment when everything began to go wrong.

At some point, presumably in the early days of social media, people with a shared complaint started to sort themselves out and reached a tentative conclusion about their predicament. Their lives were a mess, and one of the things they had in common with each other was that at one point they thought they were headed for better things, due to being designated “gifted” as children. From this came the idea that being marked “gifted” as a child left one ill-prepared for adulthood, because being taught that things should come easy to you ended up sending the subconscious message that anything difficult to learn wasn’t worth the hassle. To be designated in such a way became a curse, as after becoming used to giving up on things one didn’t take to immediately, one became ruined for the difficult work that constitutes adulthood and the frequent rejections that define it.

Enough people felt affirmed by this anecdotally familiar arc there must be some truth to it, though there is much it conveniently elides. I, for one, still believe in the possibility that geniuses exist, even if I can’t count myself among them. I learned to read at a young age, and could write well. This no longer strikes me as miraculous as I remained fixated on this skill until adulthood and it subsequently brought me nothing, so it seems meaningless to me. Other kids could draw, or play music; some people’s brains are particularly adept at learning multiple languages, all these things continue to strike me as impressive. I’m still not sure there’s much evidence such gifts are rewarded by widespread acknowledgment in our era, which we should never forget is run by psychopaths who insist on the rightness of their rule but launder their monopolistic power through the fortunes of mid-level bureaucrats and their collective whims. I want to see the control group, to know how the people designated decidedly average are doing, but they don’t seem to be attracting large followings online by talking about their childhoods. I’m not sure anyone enjoys the struggle to attain mastery, nor are there many fields that afford a beginner the grace to fail repeatedly. While it’s sometimes easier to quit a job than to get fired from it, most places will never give you a chance in the first place if you’re not already overqualified. Plenty of people are smart and talented, and nonetheless struggling to find success, and plenty of people fall below what I would assume to be the average, and many of them are struggling as well, though it’s possible some have found success in a field that discourages critical thinking.

I may seem to be positing there is some sort of percentile system to talent, and suggesting those in the upper tiers of any particular field will be subject to the whims of a market governed by those less than them, which maybe seems to approach some sort of Randian Superman concept I do not mean to endorse. Really, I just mean success in the arts, or any other field, has very little to do with the quality of one’s work and far more to do with one’s ability to make connections, and generally get along in the world of powerful people whose relationship to oneself is primarily based on their ability to exploit you, and one is not necessarily untalented for being incapable of doing this.

But what I actually want to talk about is how the “gifted kid” discourse moved on to affirm the exact opposite of this idea. The belief became about the idea that, since “intelligence” is measured in culturally specific ways that are innately racist, the idea that anyone is smarter than another is false. The kids who got called gifted were all white kids, who were then put on track to think of themselves as better than other people. Their patterns of behavior that parents and teachers insisted were signs that the curriculum being presented was not enough for them, was in fact undiagnosed ADHD or being on the autism spectrum, and they were then placed in situations where they would be indulged, which was an opportunity their classmates of color were not afforded.

The rhetorical posture makes it clear this is meant to be a left-wing response to the right-leaning sentiment of “my genius is not appreciated because I’m besieged by mediocrity.” But I’m not sure what it is actually meant to accomplish in terms of achieving left-wing goals. Beyond the general principle of calling out institutional racism, which I have no problem with, the destination arrived at is a self-diagnosis, a finding fault within oneself that can only be corrected by prescriptions to adderall and weed, maybe microdosing.

Of course, many people around my age were prescribed ritalin as an ADHD medicine as children once it became available. In college, as schoolwork and socializing become intertwined, and both demanded a student “go hard,” many more turned to adderall, as its buoying effect has both recreational and pharmaceutical uses. As these drugs become widely used, what people expect to see in someone who is high-functioning and accomplishing great things shifts, as the people who use the medications set the standard. There’s a 19th century precedent for this: William Halsted, the Johns Hopkins chief of surgery who required residents in training to be on call 362 days out of the year and do overnight shifts, was addicted to cocaine, and holding medical students to a standard of rigor he achieved by artificial means.

Now medical marijuana is available in certain states, and so those seeking to self-medicate appeal to the prescribing psychiatrist with a set of symptoms they are not exactly lying about, anxiety and depression and back pain, but in turn come to define themselves by seeing themselves in the diagnostic light, seeking themselves to be made well by learning self-acceptance through the scrim of weed smoke. It is normal to want to get high, but if a situation is created where the easiest way to get high is to admit to a professional that you have a problem, that’s going to affect people’s self-perception. I also don’t think it’s coincidental the push for legalization is happening during times that are so dire, when it would be reasonable to expect far greater political upheaval than what we’re actually seeing. The great wedge issue both Libertarians and the Green party have used to shave a few votes off the barely politically educated has been adopted as a way to pacify the populace so they do not get any more involved in politics.

Perhaps this is analogous to how beauty standards set by magazine covers are distorted by photo retouching, only what people are measuring themselves against aren’t media images, but the entire world, but much as the family wealth behind most successful figures is hidden, so too are the alterations in brain chemistry needed to make it through the day. I am sure I could’ve organized the thoughts that constitute this essay faster had I been on adderall; it’s also possible the novels I’ve written would be longer and better-written, and perhaps published and successful, had I access to a steady supply. How many people only have ADHD by the standard set by people whose prescriptions allow them a monomaniacal focus?

Whose brains would not be distracted by the constant temptation of the internet? The people airing these complaints are steadfastly plugged into the internet, which is increasingly the means by which we drive ourselves insane. This is because of the despair that looking at the news constantly mires you in, of course, and the weird takes and misinformation that places people into their own various private pocket realities, but also because accomplishment on the internet is measured in clicks. One gets dopamine from a popular post, but there are increasingly less outlets for a person to place their work, and they’re always in competition with others more popular. The internet is global, and while one could at one point have an impact in their community, either the locale they live in or the subculture they participate in, that is no longer enough: If something does make an impact, it dissipates immediately, forgotten about completely in two weeks. So what one is forever chasing is the feeling of those rare days when you feel like you’re communicating to the broader globe. The standard we’re failing is an inhuman standard, set by stimulants and algorithms, scaled to the size of the globe, rather than a natural community. It’s not that people are not gifted for failing to succeed on those terms, but that we’re all subject to something larger than our ability to organize a response to it.

I know that “I used to think I was a genius! Now I believe I have a disability” is meant to be a statement of humility, but it feels like a concession of powerlessness before a collective mind one is reluctant to attempt to persuade. I don’t even have individuals to cite as authors of these ideas: They are just voices, whose thoughts are bits of flotsam bobbing above waterline of the internet’s vast sea, who seemingly engaged the Twitter mechanism the way its machinery wanted. But beyond that, as individuals, they made no impression, powerless before the thing they were seeking acknowledgment from. Perhaps they were not seeking to be elevated above the morass at all when they articulated this thought. Perhaps this identification as being somehow “wrong” is done as a way of seeking out approval within a larger body they’re a part of. There’s a leftist posture to the argument, despite the unmistakable whiff of a thought that exists after the forfeiture of the hope of ever organizing one’s workplace. I assume, similarly, that radicalizing one’s family is beyond the attainable. But perhaps the idea is that one can liberalize their families, by appealing to their sense of sympathy, the conservative loyalty to blood, and convince them to become an ally to a specific struggle. Perhaps a family can be entreated to care about “mental health struggles” the same way they might realize the urgency of universal health care if someone in their family receives a cancer diagnosis that’s too expensive to treat with what an employer provides.

But even though IQ might be a fake concept with a meaningless number attached, and possessing any intelligence at all will have one continually aware of what one does not know or will never know, much as to truly engage in a talent is to forever be pushing up against the limits of one’s ability, people that are smarter than other people still exist, and the world as structured doesn’t know what to do with gifted people. It doesn’t know what to do with anyone! The world as it stands is violently opposed to solving the problems that exist in society, and a world that actually honors people’s gifts would be far closer to direct democracy. It might actually be maneuverable, without the constant leveraging of affinity groups to find common cause. We would just need to recognize these talents for what they are, without the only measure of someone’s value being money. As it is, there’s a school-to-prison pipeline for some, a system of academia and debt for others, a few opportunities afforded the truly wealthy to do whatever they want because they’ve already been designated as elite, meanwhile the violent and fascistic element of white supremacy gets shunted into the police force. Those that use their bodies are prescribed opioids to cope with the pain of their bodies being strained beyond what’s reasonable to expect a body to do, and those who’ve gone the academic route and are doing intellectual labor seek prescriptions to stimulants to hold themselves to their own self-imposed impossible standard, with everyone conditioned to see themselves on the brink of precarity.  

The people that were once designated as gifted because their parents were looking on them with love, and saw in them boundless potential, are now viewing themselves as being in some way broken because the boundless potential that exists within every human being is compromised by a society of serfdom. Today’s adults are just told to learn to code, but not everyone is going to be adept at this. It’s just presented as a skill everyone can learn to do, if they’re motivated enough to learn, as if the primary focus of schooling was not always to break people’s will and condition them to the demeaning nature of wage labor. I feel comfortable saying “no” to this. I don’t want to, this sucks, it’s not interesting, it’s hard. It may be  a child’s tantrum to reject these things in such terms, but this is not the way my brain is wired. Maybe there is a belief that admitting brains are wired differently, and some people excel in some fields while others do not, sounds too much like eugenics because the way our world is currently ordered views certain abilities as disposable. The alternative insists everyone can do the same things, in order to devalue those with a natural facility, while making everyone else miserable.

People feel more comfortable changing themselves than they do with changing the world around them, which makes sense, because it seems easier. The issue is that one is continually changing the world, just by participating, constituting a piece of it, and the world can be made more inhuman by not holding ourselves or others in a way that respects our shared humanity. Accepting ourselves and those around us, honoring the aspects of the self we hold in high regard as talents or gifts, is an important early step in the rejection of the institutions that seek to devalue everyone in order to maintain the status quo as it’s currently formulated.

Friday, August 06, 2021


 I am a longtime holdout against smartphones, but during the course of COVID I received word that my old dumb phone would soon cease functioning. AT&T was shutting down its 3G network, in favor of 5G, and even though I'd read articles about how the wavelengths a 5G network uses were going to make weather prediction less accurate and therefore would endanger people as climate change got worse, it was nonetheless insisting on itself as the way of the world, and old devices would need to be replaced. I did not particularly want to shop for a new phone during a global pandemic, but I also hate shopping, for anything other than food, books, or records, in general. Every decision feels too major, too big to be left to only me. I feel often like I am doing it wrong, making mistakes. And, in turn, I do: I buy the wrong bedding because I forget the word for the size of of my bed and do not discover my mistake until its too late. My computer's mouse stopped functioning and I was under the mistaken impression I had to buy another Apple product to replace it, unaware cheaper versions would be compatible with my computer. In actual fact, the Apple mouse I purchased was incompatible, because I haven't updated my OS in years.

My hesitancy to participate in the regular upgrading of technology has made all the ways things are designed to be convenient not convenient at all, and in fact incredibly intimidating. Part of me knows that I need to get over this, and adjust to the world as it's currently constructed. Another part of is unsure there are any actual benefits to doing so. Yes, there are now restaurants that will not give you a physical menu in favor of telling you to scan a QR code to look up the menu on your phone. Getting a COVID vaccine, I was similarly told to scan a QR code for some reason I've since forgotten. The most popular dating apps exist entirely on smartphones with no website equivalent, and these are increasingly how anyone meets anybody else. People stream music constantly, there are major releases by rappers I once kept up with I now have no real idea how to hear.

So when my phone company offered my a free smartphone, I thought, ok, maybe this will be good for me. From the mouse debacle I'd learned that Apple products were a total scam, and so I thought that at least maybe if I didn't get an iPhone I might still have an edge. Immediately after agreeing to have a Samsung Galaxy sent to me, I started to panic. I despise typing on a touchscreen keyboard, it is incredibly slow, the predictive text and autocorrect meant to make it easier I find nightmarish, causing miscommunication, slowing me down further, and cause me to interface with an AI that is attempting to mirror my cognition when all I want is to outsmart it or be original and unpredictable enough my pattern can't be anticipated by anyone outside myself. Similarly, I don't want my moves monitored, my data harvested, to be advertised to constantly on a device designed to sell me things.

Admittedly, the prospect of a dating app holds allure. I moved to Philadelphia not long before the pandemic began, I don't know very many people here at all, and my social circle I've met through mutual friends is almost all male in a way that actually strikes me as completely bizarre. However, I also very quickly realized that I don't have the emotional wherewithal to present myself to strangers as fun and interesting, given the way in which the pandemic is affecting the way society is made up, I don't know what restaurants people go to, I am only now considering the idea of going to the movies again. Also the whole thing is just a mechanism of being reminded where one stands in terms of people's split-second evaluation of one's sexual desirability, which is a very harsh prospect where I've never fared well. It is absolutely better for me as a person to not try to engage with a mechanism that views relationships as transactional, for the sake of my self-esteem as well as just what I understand to be the human soul.

I did not expect the device to arrive the next day. A friend of mine pointed out later that that's the whole point of having a smartphone, that you are a part of a world where things are just delivered to you immediately, as soon as you ask for them, through dating apps, meal delivery apps, grocery store personal shopping apps, Amazon Prime, Spotify, etc. Not yet an initiate, I found the box in my mail pile and inspected it thinking about how I didn't have any cassette tapes coming to me before I realized what it was. Unpacking it, it seemingly turned itself on, and began to introduce itself to me, with text boxes taking me through a series of steps I was not sure I wanted to do. Immediately I was being asked to participate in practices I thought I would want to avoid but was not really able to circumvent. For instance, I was told "cloud storage" would be free for a first month, and then data rates would apply, unless I canceled it; there did not seem to be a way to just opt out of this. For me the strangest thing is that it was asking me to join a Wi-fi network: I'm not really sure why I need to do that, considering the whole point of a phone and 5G is that it is connecting to a a system of satellites. I am typing to you on a desktop computer that connects to the internet through a wireless router; there's a password to the network but it's so long I don't immediately know it. So I tried to skip that step as well, and so my smartphone has yet to become actually functional. There are apps loaded up that are waiting to update, but all of the information is incorrect in ways I can't manually adjust: The date and calendar are off. Apparently the phone can still call 911, but any other phone call or text is forbidden to me. At least on that device, my 3G phone still works and is how I am able to communicate.

This gives me time to do a tedious task, which is manually add my contacts I've accrued over the course of a decade-plus that are stored on a sim card incompatible with the more advanced technology. Apparently transfers of this information is done over bluetooth, which my old phone does not possess. So instead the other day I copied all the names and numbers I have stored into a notebook, so I can begin adding them to the memory of this new machine, so I can use it for the only thing I am comfortable using a phone for. This is its own melancholy process, as I wonder how many people I will ever talk to again, who of the people I maybe technically still consider friends might not necessarily ever have reason to contact me again and who I may not be inclined to contact myself on second thought. The act of culling down hundreds of contacts to the thirty or fifty most likely to send me a message I would want to be immediately aware of the context of is humbling in the most nauseating way this side of of physical sickness.

So I've sat here feeling awful about this device any time I think of it, knowing I will need to return it in exchange for something else, and that while I received this thing for free I might need to pay for something more specialized, that terms and conditions might apply to a return, or asking a professional for assistance in making this maelstrom more manageable. I feel truly awful about it. The benefits of a smartphone are so meager I'm not sure why anyone chooses them. Every ringtone sounds godawful.

Another one of the first things I did with this new phone was give it a password, not thinking that this meant I would need to enter it anew every time I looked away from it, which I did an awful lot of during the beginnings of the project of entering numbers in. This is something that seemed reasonable but I just immediately regretted, a move made in anticipation of some fear that someone might someday want to steal this thing I received for free and already regard as a burden. The screen goes black when I look away, I push a little button and each time one of a rotation of generic backgrounds pops up to sicken me because I have not settled on imagery favored to reassure me, the way my computer's desktop background of a Bill Sienkiewicz drawing of Nancy and Sluggo as rendered as features on a xenomorph does. Similarly, the photos of people that perhaps would pop up when they call me to let me know what they look like beyond my knowledge of their name I don't know how to access. I am not on Instagram and have been assured it's annoying. I have never been on Facebook, although I know I have a shadow profile thanks to everyone on it that has my number in their phone, this includes my mother, who Facebook has inundated with enough right-wing garbage shared by people she considers friends that she does not plan to ever get a COVID vaccine. I was on Twitter for years, and remain addicted to browsing it, but I was kicked off years ago and so the only way I could ever again have a timeline would be if I started a new account that would never be as popular as the one I had, now that its timeline is more algorithmic in a way that punishes new accounts. I would never join Tiktok, nor would I ever watch a movie on my phone. The only thing that interests me about the powers this device can wield that an older phone could not is its ability to access maps and mp3s. I touch the screen and it just gets gross and greasy, reminding me I'm meant to buy a customized case that maybe is indicative of my idea of myself. I really cannot think about it without feeling its own fingers crawling along the wrinkles of my brain whose reward centers it wants desperately to alter.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Favorite Records Of The First Half of 2021

I have thought for the past few years that doing more regular music posts would be far more manageable, and potentially more useful, than doing a single year-end list. Of course, I don't really have the motivation to actually try to track down a position writing about music anywhere. I'm bad at it usually, and I'm not sure how much I value the current expectations of the form. (My ideal is the Forced Exposure style paragraph-long review, very much the opposite of the five-paragraph essay form that the internet's lust for content has made standard.) However, this time I've written up a baker's dozen of my favorite albums of the year so far, Bandcamp links when available.

Rosali - No Medium. The LP pressing of this sold out immediately and I truly regret not grabbing one. I had this idea I'd be able to find a physical copy in Philadelphia, as Rosali Middleman lives here, but so far no luck. Anyway, this is so listenable. Backed up by the David Nance Group, who rock in this sort of Neil Young/Crazy Horse style of the chaotic choogle, with killer female vocals that are very pure and unaccented/unaffected. I've been playing last year's David Nance LP, Staunch Honey, a lot too, the swamp-rot vibe feels very weather-appropriate in our era where even the Pacific Northwest will be made sweltering climate change. I loved Trouble Anyway, the last Rosali record, a lot too, but this is real Summer BBQ jams. Feels like the reoccurring lyrical theme here is the plainspoken sexual desire of a woman pushing forty, real put-the-beer-bottle-to-your-forehead sorta stuff.

Palberta - Palberta5000. These ladies have a Philly connection too! Everyone knows that Palberta is a sick band these days. Except the Pitchfork review for this record was a real "Huh, I object to a lot of stuff being written here." Like, describing songs as acapella despite the presence of instruments. And crediting certain instrumentation as being particularly strong from certain members even though they switch instruments constantly and I have no idea how you'd be able to distinguish one person's playing from another. Anyway, rocking in the Minutemen/Deerhoof mode, tightening up their pop side to get that much closer to the Exile In Guyville sweetspot, but with killer vocal harmonies. The sort of record that you start playing and don't turn off because once a song starts and you recognize it you know it's a banger.

Azita - Glen Echo. Not sure I've ever super-dug into Azita Youssefi's body of work though the fact that she fronted Bride Of No-No backed up by the two radicals that later went on to do Metalux means a lot. I also think I maybe saw an Azita set opening for Shellac fifteen years ago but can't remember. Anyway. Lots of people will describe her solo music as sounding like Steely Dan, and while I increasingly am around people who will tell you that's a good thing it doesn't mean much to me but I am vaguely picking up a vibe from this where it's like... Are people responding to this vibe? But also there's this first Velvet Underground LP guitar tone, the vocals aren't godawful, there's nothing corny here. There's just this detached groove. Find this very easy to get into.

Fievel Is Glauque - God's Trashmen Sent To Right The Mess. Another one where I'm like "Is this what people like about Steely Dan" as they do something that feels like jazz or bossa nova but with very concise songs up in front of the weird chords/improvised actions. Led by Zach Phillips on keyboards, and while I also really liked the Perfect Angels tape (particularly the Chiffons cover, and that there's a song dedicated to Morgan Vogel, a friend of friends) and am super-psyched for Blanche Blanche Blanche's return, I gotta concede this is more "accessible" than the latter. All these projects are fronted by these vocalist/personalities that are radically appealing in their je ne sais quoi/fearlessness at presenting a charismatic personality but in a way that's unafraid to get dadaist/avant-garde in its lyrical strategies in an era where "lyrical persona" is so closely connected to "press release narrative" that there's no mystery left, what Marie Clément does here is so mature in comparison - the accent will have people pigeonholing it as yé-yé, but while that's inaccurate to what's happening musically, it suggests how being mildly aloof is totally baffling in an age of literalism.

Blanche Blanche Blanche - Seashells. Damn OK, thought I was just going to let the Fievel Is Glauque thing serve as my coverage of Zach's oeuvre but I'm so psyched for the return of Blanche Blanche Blanche, a longstanding favorite band, and I gotta get into what Sarah Smith is doing here, fronting a more pared-down musical backdrop with an even more casual set of provocations. Despicable Me, "can I fingerblast you," jeepers creepers y'all, you are truly free. The ad-libs alone feel like crashing a car into a Reddit server. "Blue" Gene Tyranny liked this band? Damn dog.

"Blue" Gene Tyranny - Degrees Of Freedom Found. This is a 6-CD box set that I'm only starting to dig into, I can tell you that discs two, five, and six are maybe the most accessible ones to start with. I loved Out Of The Blue and Trust In Rock, didn't really fuck with the solo piano Detours record I'd heard, the stuff I like here isn't really similar to either extreme, often juxtaposing synthesizer with other instruments. Some of the most immediately grabbing stuff feels like it's using SNES midi flute sound palettes with real piano accompaniment. I've barely dug in but I've found some rewards already, and if all of disc four, with its extended narrative, ends up clicking for me the way that side B of Out Of The Blue, "A Letter From Home," does than that'll be a hell of a thing.

Armand Hammer & The Alchemist - Haram. Texted friends like "Armand Hammer really out here eating people," this shit sounds so good. "Indian Summer" is the track where it all starts to really click, incredible verses, incredible production, by the time you get to the sorta singing on the last track I am pumping my fist like damn music is incredible.

L'Rain - Anguish. This just came out and I was unfamiliar with the artist beforehand. Often, music by black women is written about in a way that really centers a narrative of the artist's identity over what the music itself is doing - music writing does this because no one understands music theory, but people do understand a personal story. Stuff like this, that's totally fucking wild musically just has no context for it besides the same hyperbolic "this is important" language used to discuss artists that are far more popular and widely-known. So when I first heard of L'Rain, through a Tone Glow interview, I just read the interview being like "I have no idea what this person's music sounds like." Partly that's because Tone Glow usually covers "experimental" music that I don't particularly care for or find too minimal, and that's what I assume is the deal with most of the artists they interview whose music I haven't spent much time with, but I could tell that wouldn't be the case with this. Now that I've heard it, I'd describe this as R&B with a collage aesthetic, like Erykah Badu being produced by The Oliva Tremor Control, but I don't love that description and I'm just trying to get you to check it out, shit is wild.

Charles Lloyd & The Marvels - Tone Poem. I am trying to be on the lookout for Charles Lloyd records for cheap, feel like he's pretty undervalued due to how he was popular at the time, and didn't make free jazz records, but his classic bands are all sick as hell. Gabor Szabo's Dreams LP got a bump from the Youtube algorithm and Szabo played on some classic Lloyd LPs. This isn't on Bandcamp because it's released on Blue Note but you could check out this 2-CD set of live shows from 1965 with a killer band. The guitar connection sorta connects it to this band The Marvels, which features Bill Frisell. I loved the record they did a few years ago that had Lucinda Williams singing on half the songs. I almost compared Rosali to Lucinda Williams but it's not so much that their voices have things in common that I am like... I think the people who like this artist are getting a vibe that I am getting from this wholly other thing. That's a tangent, this one has a covers of Ornette Coleman tunes and no vocals.

Paulina Anna Strom - Angel Tears In Sunlight. RIP. Not sure how to talk about these electronic soundscapes,"fourth world," maybe? Gorgeous ambiences being evoked while always being too musical and full of life to be characterized as ambient. I loved the reissue RVNG did a few years ago too.

Humanbeast - Divine Redeemer. I really like these two and have seen them rip killer sets a bunch of times, haven't seem them perform in ages, this is a double LP, wildly ambitious, so sick. I was a little bit let down with the record they did for Load because all those songs would be more fucked up, noisy and aggressive live, so circumstances having prevented me from experiencing this material beforehand means just getting into these tunes now, which I believe are all like the edited-down versions of longer excursions.

Editrix - Tell Me I'm Bad. The avant-garde guitarist Wendy Eisenberg fronts what they call an indie rock band and goddamn you know I love it. More than the no wave band Birthing Hips, more than their solo folk project, I didn't hear the Tzadik LP with Trevor Dunn and Ches Smith but while it's quite possible I would've liked that a good amount but come on, I am always describing myself as "the biggest indie rocker at the noise show," I think that vibe comes through with this list, and this album, which is kinda like a heavier Deerhoof but again with lyrics that seem like they are mostly jokes (like "what's your sun what's your moon what's your rising" on a song called "Chillwave") feels like it's designed to snap the necks of anyone not all the way on its level, which might include me most days, but also is perfectly in line with how I'm feeling most days. Like I would snap my own neck for not being on the right level.

DIDA - Ingenuous Scenes. I've never played Katamari Damacy and am assuming this is what the music is like. Real video game world kinda thing. Brightly colored, very melodic, but also with such an emphasis on a sort of artificial environment and moving through it. I find it really engaging.