Friday, October 24, 2008

The new Marnie Stern album is getting more attention than the last one, which is probably for the best: That first record ruled, total audience-builder type stuff. I am getting a vague sense, maybe, from the way people are reacting- dudes with blogs, mostly- of this sort of "Oh, man, I love her" borderline uncritical appraisal. Not in a prurient way, more like the way that Margaret Cho and Ellen Degeneres have really uncritical fanbases at this point. But in Marnie's case, it would be made up of straight dudes. I don't know for sure how accurate these impressions are.

It's pretty awesome at first- the first three songs have this sense of dynamics that I don't think anything on In Advance Of The Broken Arm had. There's this feeling of things being built, structures being erected. Sometimes the dynamics are kind of annoying, or simplistic, but then when that gives way to something else, they're some of the most thrilling moments of recorded music this year. It gets pretty exhilarating.

Later on, things start to feel- I don't know, eighties-ish? The songs sort of lose that initial dynamic quality, even as they're filled with more moving parts than ever. It's still a part of the same unifying impulse. It's sort of like the variations on Steven Millhauser short stories- The first few songs build impossible cities, and then the middle section sculpt incredibly detailed miniatures.

Things start to come together again towards the end. On the whole Zach Hill's drumming is more integrated into the songs this go-round, even as the drum sound in the middle songs starts to boom in a mildly off-putting way.

Oh, and even though it's probably not my favorite song, the lyric "I'm like a raging animation/I wonder what it's like to be one" is pretty awesome, especially for animation nerds. I like how the second line seems to imply "I wonder what it's like to be a raging animation" but the first line states implicitly that she already knows what that's like experientially. Rather, she's wondering what it's like to "be one"- a single thing, rather than a collection of tiny drawings or photographs ordered together. I think it's a pretty great statement, if that's what it's hinting at.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

For those who haven't heard it, I should point out that The New Bloods' The Secret Life album is pretty great, maybe the best debut album by a band this year. Live, some of the dynamics are lost and the songs start to blur into each other, but the record itself goes from strength to strength. When I saw them, a friend said "Yeah, I'm not into them- They're just ripping off The Raincoats."

Later on, I asked that friend if he had heard anything by The Raincoats after their first record, namely, their second album, Odyshape, which I had come into possession of. He had not, which is fair enough: They're a band whose entire catalog is out of print. Odyshape is a really weird record. I pretty much don't get it, actually. Part of it could be the CD remaster not being the best: That generally explains why the drums sound recorded from a ditch, and why the other instruments sound likewise isolated from each other. That also seems deliberate, with the way the melodies stop and start, rising and falling, generally travelling through space, on song after song. Not a crowd-pleaser in the bunch. Y Pants would almost be a comparison point, but sensory deprivation chambers would be a better one. It's really strange, but completely compelling: What possessed them? Does the second Slits record a lot of people hate sound like this? (Probably not, since The Raincoats' self-titled debut is approximately three times better than Cut.) Is it possible they got worse at playing their instruments after their first album, even as they were getting more ambitious? A really odd record.

They made other records after this, but I haven't heard them.

The New Bloods, while fine, will probably never make a record as fucked-up as this one. It's good for records like Odyshape to exist, to throw the distinctiveness of a band like The Raincoats into relief and allow for there to be variations that exist that need not get branded a rip-off.

Friday, October 10, 2008

I did not go to Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland. I did, however, go to Atomic Books in Baltimore and pick up this comic called "Swell #1: Open Faced Sandwich," by Juliacks. Normally my comics posts are just me singing the praises of stuff Picturebox put out, but this will be a slight change from that.

First off: Presentationally, this comic is sick as hell. It's 11 by 11, and the version I have has two-color silkscreened covers, which are really gorgeous. More than their aesthetic beauty, there's this charge I get from silkscreened cover comics: It's an incredibly laborious process, and then it's just put out there, for cheap. (This cost five dollars, there are also versions without silkscreen covers that cost $2, which is still a great bargain for the size.) It just feels so open. These comics will inevitably get looked at more than they get bought, flipped through at a convention and retain some finger-oil.The copy I have isn't immaculately printed, there is a little bit of bleed on the blue at the outer edge, which is completely understandable.

The rest of the book follows suit, even though it's black and white xerox, it's just filled with mark-making, and really thought-out and overwrought page composition. It gives off a feeling of passion, of emotion, through the book format. Sometimes it's not intuitively readable, but there's something being communicated.

The thing I've sort of attached myself to about comics, and the idea of cartooning, is that it's writing and it's drawing, each inform the other. This becomes evident with stuff like this, where the lettering is really intense and a big part of the page design, but there's also definitions at work. "Artist" is a pretty broad category, that a lot of people identify themselves as. Identifying as a "writer" is conscribing oneself to a more specialized field. Now, there are distinctions that have sort of emerged- of "literary" comics that tend to work like short stories or movies. In these, a cartoonist is a writer who's using a visual language. There are also "art comics," which is a term usually assigned to artists doing comics, or books, as part of their overall multimedia assault: A comic that could be placed into an art installation. Juliacks is firmly in the latter group, as she does performances and installations based around her comics and the themes contained herein.

I am a writer, as are a handful of my friends. I am also about Juliacks' age. One thing I have talked to some of my friends about in writing is the issue of having things happen, making writing that people want to read for the story being told, rather than the pleasure of simply experiencing the language. The writing becomes closer to visual art in something like this, I think, in how one engages it, and maybe in its emotional effects, different from something with tighter story structure. The thing about Swell: Open Faced Sandwich (which Juliacks says is just part one of a three-part graphic novel) is that there's no real arc to it: Things happen, kind of, but it's all pitched at this single level, of just trying to communicate a feeling. It radiates sincerity, and energy, but there's no pace to it at all as a thing that you read. Compare this to Anders Nilsen's The End, with its stripped down drawings and narration that give way to abstractions that communicate a very pure feeling, or to the way Gary Panter switches up his drawing style in Jimbo: Adventures In Paradise so that by the time you feel like you've come to the end of a long journey. Swell is art-comics as a really cool thing that, through it's nonstop ecstatic sadness, ends up just giving you more of a feeling for the artist making it rather than the emotions the story is ostensibly meant to convey. (The story is about a girl who dies, told from the perspective of her friend. The characters are teenagers, I think.)

Juliacks will probably get better. She is apparently working on a drawing collaboration with Matthew Thurber, who I think is an awesome cartoonist: He shares a love for mark-making, patterns, and psychedelic effects with Juliacks, but his stories are funnier, more fantastical, and actually just very recently got a lot more readable as traditional comics. Meanwhile, she's being championed by Austin English, who is much less talented at drawing, and also tries just to communicate feeling by crappy drawing and using crayons. Both of these people are probably more interested in art-comics of a recent vintage than the history of sequential art as a whole, which is maybe a weakness. Most of the "art comics" people I like (the Picturebox dudes) are pretty well-versed and immersed in mainstream comics and are just able to turn it inside out and disregard whatever. In some ways there's more freedom and coolness in ignorance, and I don't know if you actually need to know about that stuff to make good comics. It could just be a question of youth. My writer friends and I have read all sorts of books, and tie our inability to tell stories to our inability to really self-direct and control our own lives.

Oh, and since this post immediately follows one about the political apathy of Baltimore art kids, I must applaud the fact that this comic has a sticker on its inside cover giving out her website and saying "please vote!" Again, if I am going to draw a parallel between that level of political engagement and the emotional engagement and empathy that leads to creating strong work, that sticker feels sincere in the same way the printmaking and patterns all do. You could do worse things with your money than support this lady.

Now would be a good time to talk about Closed Caption Comics 7, but it's hard to identify all the artists, and I would like to see more of most of their work. Noel Freibert's comics seem pretty stupid though.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

I thought it was kind of odd when I heard that Brian Chippendale started a "Noise For Obama" website. I suppose that having gone to a liberal arts school in the Pacific Northwest, where the music community is fairly notoriously politically engaged, made me take certain people's political positions for granted. Now I live in Baltimore, am somewhat engaged in an arts/music scene, and haven't heard anyone talk about politics the whole time I've been here, despite sort of freaking out about the economy and being willing to talk to people about it.

But I just learned that the majority of these people- self-proclaimed "artists" are actually very much unengaged. Waiting until 2012 and the apocalypse. Not voting in the interim. Engaged enough in conspiracy theories to think that things could happen to make Baltimore devolve into race riots due to issues related to Obama's candidacy, like election defrauding. I'm sure all of these people admire Brian Chippendale a ton though. But I guess you don't actually learn things when you go to art school.

I went to a liberal arts college, where, in addition to having liberal politics taken for granted and having arguments about Palestine shoved down my throat, I also studied American history and economics for a year. By the standards of Olympia, I'm borderline apolitical, inasmuch as I didn't attend protests. But I still knew the issues enough to be engaged with them enough to talk about them, to write satire or freak out.

The streets of Baltimore are flooded with pro-Obama sentiment. Some random dude asked me who I was voting for outside on my front sidewalk. Maryland will surely go towards Obama. But a lot of the reasoning behind this seems largely to do with identity politics. To learn that, outside of that group, the people that you would think of as being smart and forward-thinking are just all about apocalyptic thinking (WHICH I AM COMPLETELY GUILTY OF AND INTERESTED IN) to the exclusion of moderation seems way more problematic than the Olympia activists who were interested in anarchist thinking who didn't vote because of it. Because I never respected or interacted with the latter group.

So, anyway, Noise For Obama. If you click past the portrait of Obama drawn by Chippendale, you'll find artist statements, and Chippendale's is as cogent as you would expect from a dude engaged enough in the world to actually make affecting work.

I don't know how politically engaged Marnie Stern is, although I linked to the Kill Rock Stars blog as well, and her album came out today, a little less than a month before election day, and I will buy it tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Check it out: A negative review of me and a video I made! I would warn you about spoilers but to a certain extent the description of what happens is inaccurate. She also gets the title of the piece wrong. I am described as nerdy-looking, which is not inaccurate, but the reviewer doesn't make the connection that I am the person she is describing thusly. I am not going to respond to any of her actual critiques.