Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Music of Autumn 2012

I haven't been writing much about music lately. Partly this is because of the difficulty of doing so in a remotely interesting way, but it's also really easy to think it doesn't matter at all. I have pretty much no readership, and in a world where it seems like most music writing is tied to "personal brand" or "curating," it feels like a cool record label agreeing to release something is more of an endorsement than I could ever provide. This sort of defeatist attitude, like most defeatist attitudes these days, cedes a lot of power to people with money, so it's time to get back on the horse. Also, keeping on top of what every cool record label puts out is for record collecting nerds with Asperger's, and "personal brands" are for assholes.

That said: The Editions Mego imprint Spectrum Spools is on top of a sizable portion of the chunk of underground in which my friends reside. Their focus is more on music made with synthesizers than my own instincts lean, but hey, I get it, guitar music is on the way out. Meanwhile, Editions Mego itself put out a new record by Fenn O'Berg, called In Hell, which sidesteps the analog synths in favor of milking the laptop for some gorgeous and subtle music. I don't know how to talk about that if you're not familiar with the Mego label- Its proprietor, Peter Rehberg, plays in this trio alongside Christian Fennesz and Jim O'Rourke, and the beauty I refer to is not of a classical variety but in relation to other abstractions that don't show reflect light so cleanly.

A few years ago, Lazy Magnet released an album with the name "Is Music Even Good." Upon hearing the title, I was immediately won over. When I heard the record, I was blown away: Its constant genre switching appealed to some sort of engrained conception of music instilled by a childhood love of Ween and other goofballs, but was being made by a dude submerged in the noise scene, without finding any champions amongst the set that views that sort of weirdness the summit of all art. Not enough time changes for the Mike Patton crowd, I suppose. This could be due to the fact that Lazy Magnet is not a band, but a solo project, or really an umbrella term for the work done by one Jeremy Harris. Things never get too technical, or session-musician-y. Since moving to Baltimore, I've seen him perform a few times: A few sets were performed with a rock band, but the dominant mode for his song composition as of late has been on electronic equipment (drum machines, sequencers, MIDI). I believe the same equipment is used in his band Meager Sunlight, a duo with his partner, who also shows up on his new release, Crystal Cassette, to do some vocals. They hover along the synth-pop axis, vocals are deadpan, cold, fashionable at this point in time, but because of his past I tend to view these things as "songs," first and foremost, rather than as a set of sound and signifiers- One time I played Is Music Even Good for a friend and heard it through their ears, where the switching of genres, the weirdnesses where a country song would be distorted into clipping noise, these bits of structure were there in place of traditional songwriting chops, and the overall effect was not that of a "mixtape" of songs that were strong examples of their respective elements, so much as a collage that gave the overall effect of a goof. I do not mind these things, at all, but in working within a more defined palette over the length of an album you get to hear a single aesthetic tamed into multiple songs and maybe get more of an appreciation for what he's doing. There's a Meager Sunlight record forthcoming on Spectrum Spools, as well as a Lazy Magnet due out on Bathetic in the months to come. Just the other day there was a Twitter conversation between Bathetic and Jeremy about making a country record, which is also promising. This tape is on Night People, who put out little comps on Mediafire so you can check out songs from pretty much all their releases of a given time period. I'm listening to the latest compilation right now, so I can also add this little micro-review: I like the drum sound on this Peak Twins track.

Happy Jawbone Family Band have a new cassette, The Silk Pistol, available on Night People as well. It's also available for streaming/download on their Bandcamp page, so while I wait for a replacement copy (I got a bad dub) I gave it a listen. I like this band: Their first LP "Hotel Double Tragedy" I first heard on a Sunday morning, when it felt really appropriate to the slightly rainy weather outside. I was not hungover, I don't believe, but certainly other people could've been, and this would be as soothing as a good Amps For Christ record in such circumstances. Was it a Sunday afternoon when I downloaded and listened to all those Jackie-O Motherfucker records a few weeks ago? Yes it was! I don't know how you spend your Sundays (church?), but now you know how I spend mine. Anyway, Happy Jawbone Family Band's music seems like mid-90s Elephant 6's dream of the sixties, this-copy-of-a-copy effect not a watering down so much as it is a distortion into clouds of fuzz and cotton. Their 2011 LP, "Okay Midnight, You Win," recorded by a real producer loses this home-recorded charm and loses a certain essence. This music seems like collapsing, falling down. Maybe partly this effect is that while some instruments are playing wandering leads, others chime in with chords, tones? I know nothing about music composition and cannot really tell what is listening within a piece of music. I can, however, tell when someone is making a joke, and these folks do that on occasion, with the Christmas album on their Bandcamp bringing that element more to the fore. These are charming qualities for a band to have.

Jokes are aplenty on the Angels USA - VH1 Drunk cassette put out on Hundebiss a few months back. It is a sci-fi radio play where the only songs are jingles for flavors of chips- There is a chip implanted in your head that allows you to download flavors. The science-fiction vibe of the plot is abetted by the cold electronic ambiences that are basically this band's stock in trade these days, although the jingles throw in some guitar strums for variety. The jokes are great, actually laugh out loud funny rather than the "I appreciate your light-hearted nature" reaction I have to Happy Jawbone Family Band. One unintended bit of weirdness is that (at least on my tape) the first side is mastered much quieter than the second and needs to be turned way up. The other issue of course is the attention span of a listener- I have become distracted and missed some laste-in-the-tape plot twists. Oh yeah: even though each release lists band membership under different shifting aliases, Angels USA is the same band as Angels In America, aka Miami Angels In America, whose Allergic To Latex cassette I have previously held up as their best work. It still is, but this is an nice insight into their world, deepening an appreciation of the personalities at work for those who haven't hung out with them extensively. I have hung out with them only a little, and so these inside jokes were unknown to me. Nice packaging too.

Esra of Angels USA also recently made a movie with Carlos Gonzalez of Russian Tsarlag, and while there is probably no way you can see that unless you are friends or friends of friends with the involved parties, Carlos has also released three records so far this year, the best of which was probably Midnight At Mary's House, which is also the one with the most copies pressed of it. It's now unavailable from the label, Not Not Fun, but maybe copies can still be found at retail outlets that reliably order Not Not Fun releases even though they are not all commercially viable- one of these would be Baltimore, Maryland's very own The Sound Garden. Ah, but what does it sound like? It is some late night music, not emoting its despair, but speaking of its aloneness- there is an on-record request to be sent old horror movies, and if you haven't watched The Abominable Doctor Phibes in the hours between midnight and dawn then you should: It's a great movie and to do so would put you closer to understanding one of contemporary America's most interesting artists. "Colors are fading fast," the man croons, and surely this is true, away from the day-glo of the internet.

Other listening I recommend: The Mike McGonigal curated compilations of gospel music issued by Tompkins Square, James Blackshaw's Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death, Charles Mingus, the two Mount Eerie LPs from this year along with 2008's Lost Wisdom. Yes, it is after midnight now, and these things, these things, this is where I'm at these days- The Mount Eerie stuff and the Russian Tsarlag stuff is maybe of a similar emotional tone, coming from geographic opposites of the USA, the northwest and the southeast, the crispness of the mountain air versus the sludge of the swamp, the moleskine versus the VHS tape.

Monday, September 24, 2012

"the Garo tribute issue"

There was a small controversy a few months back on The Comics Journal website, a website where I am not registered to comment, at least in part because I find their controversies largely uninteresting. It concerned the Kickstarter page for a book that was trying to find funding so it could be printed and released. It's out now, but I'm not sure anyone has reviewed it, which is a perfect place for someone like me, a not-particularly-strong reviewer, to come in and say something insightful.

The book is issue 7 of Secret Prison, generally published as a free tabloid newspaper in the manner of Smoke Signal or Paper Rodeo. Issue 3 had some good comics in it, but by and large, one page comics are not the best way for unknown cartoonists to make an impression. This issue is, indeed, a book, squarebound, and every cartoonist gets a few pages to have their voice be a distinct thing. It is a "tribute" to Garo, but moreso the idea of Garo than Garo itself: Garo is an anthology of manga that began publishing in Japan in the sixties. I have never seen a copy, and even if I had, I would not be able to read it. I would wager most of the participating cartoonists never read an issue. (Besides the translated reprint) But whatever: That's a red herring, despite some contextual essays trying to explain what Garo is. (Probably as a response to the stupid fake controversy. Fake controversy, fake tribute, fake manga.)

The idea, actually, is that there are American cartoonists functioning today who are influenced by comics from Japan who are making work that nonetheless still has a sensibility closer to that found in SPX than what you would find in the sketchbook of the average Otakon attendee. The comics are pretty great, the cartoonists get a chance to impress when given the length of a story to tell a story. A lot of these cartoonists have appeared in Thickness or Sock, but watching them draw non-porno comics gives a better sense of what they do. There's still more penises in this comic than would be in manga, though.

The problem is the editorial decision to tell these people to do comics that read right to left. For someone whose pages are generally pretty chaotic, free-flowing things, like Mickey Zacchilli, this is a problem. Honestly, it's a problem for everyone, it's a contrived conceit. I don't really like reading manga right-to-left: It's how the work was originally drawn, but this idea of "authenticity" seems like the romance of kids. The inside cover cites a list of work, available in English, related to Garo and alternative manga, and, if I am correct, most of those books cited are "flipped," to read left-to-right, because Drawn And Quarterly, along with Pantheon, when they publish most Osamu Tezuka comics, considers that the way that appeals to the adult readers of the work they're publishing.

It's also a problem for reading the text-only essays, in that, when flipping a page (from right to left) it is unclear which page of an all-text spread the reader should begin with. But who cares! That was my point when writing this review, that I wanted to point out that the comics were good. The pages are large- again, closer to the unfolded newspaper page of the previous issues of Secret Prison than that of a collected manga volume (again, the influences are really mixed and matched all over the place here) which is obviously flattering to artwork in a way that manga's expanded pagecount is more flattering to storytelling than the format found in previous Secret Prisons.

Anyway, Ryan Cecil Smith's stuff is fun action-adventure comics, Noel Freibert's comic is sort of based in horror but is more interested in the creepiness of anti-social behavior than anything else, Angie Wang tells a delicate short story, Mickey Z goes for the fury of mark-making and not giving a shit, Chuck Forsman turns his attention to masturbating teens, Katie Skelly makes a comic that's pretty wack. People do what they do. Well, Tom Hart does an adaptation of someone else's work. In general, the art looks good. No one story is earth-shattering the way Tsuge's Screw-Style is but there's an homage to that comic which seems like it's heart is in the right place.

The Small Dog Other

My buddy Brian Blomerth recently completed his first full-length comic, The Small Dog Other, and it is available for purchase on his website. This follows numerous zines of his art, album covers, etc. Due to his color sense and presence in the noise scene, playing a Game Boy under the name Narwhalz Of Sound, it was easy, maybe even instinctive, to label him a Paper Rad rip-off. Some of you might even be thinking that now, if you followed the link and noted the presence of animated gifs. But after a few waves of Ben Jones rip-offs aping the "stoner sitcom" style, seeing Blomerth's comic completed places him in a lineage of underground comics, thanks to the use of some obvious reference points, from its title's reference to The East Village Other, to the violent and sexually explicit content. Brian is completely disinterested in pot, and here, he even seems disinterested in humor, besides a general "funny drawings/funny animals" style. Nothing is mellow, the credo is "Bad drugs or none at all," and psychedelia is a venue for crazy layouts, the same way it would be for Jim Starlin, rather than the internal revelations of Moebius.

I lived with Brian as he initially undertook the task of drawing a real comic. I could be wrong, but I think absolutely none of those pages appear here. There is probably as many pages found here that ended up in the garbage, not up to his standards, dismissed as "too Juxtapoz." References to Ziggy and the Challenger disaster are gone, and what is left is an underground comic that seems like it is about the sixties: Bikers and hippies in Las Vegas, versus the cops. And all of these characters are drawn as dogs, which in this context doesn't read as an alternative to Garfield so much as a reflection of the Floyd Gottfredson/Carl Barks influence on Robert Crumb. The comic is an orgy of nihilistic violence, with occasional interruptions for sex. Brian's sense of verbal humor, rooted in contemporary reference, the sort of puns that make up the bulk of his Twitter feed, is absent, in favor of this primal stew: Sixties culture carrying over into a future where destructiveness is the natural state of being, as well as civilization's endpoint.

The early pages, previously published in color, in a smaller edition, before the switch to a rapidograph, have thicker lines and more chaotic layouts. The drawing is consistently strong. The storytelling is mostly clear, although the "twist," the major plot point that leads to the destruction of Las Vegas, is not really explained in any way, besides its place in the overall logic of "fuck it." Spoiler warning: Everyone dies. It's a pretty great comic, a steal at the $7 price: The dimensions are equivalent to one of Fantagraphics' Ignatz books, there's fifty-two pages, and he self-published it in an edition of 250. And then burned one of those copies for the sake of a Youtube commercial. Anyone interested in sixties undergrounds or contemporary "transgressive" work vaguely in that tradition should be aware of this book because it pisses all over the bulk of that stuff.

He also has copies of a Narwhalz cassette, Future Vegas, for sale, but I can't recommend that, even though I have liked a handful of previous Narwhalz releases, I find this particular tape too harsh and abrasive. It is possible that to some people this description might constitute a recommendation, and I will accept that.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

How Geniuses Party

It is hard to explain how mind-melting Masaaki Yuasa's Mind Game was to me and my group of friends back in 2005. This is largely because of the fact that while the other things that constituted our personal canon back in those days- Paper Rad, those Animal Collective records, Trapped In The Closet- passed into the larger consciousness of taste-makers, Yuasa's film seemingly just received the praise of a few critics. Partly this is because it was never really that available: It had a screening at a museum, but then was passed about on torrents, and DVD-Rs sent in the mail.

His most recent series, The Tatami Galaxy, is available as streaming video via Funimation, a partner site with Hulu, but the earlier work has been difficult to keep up with: His first series, Kemonozume, was sent to me on a DVD-R after its serialization was completed; but at the time that his supposed masterpiece Kaiba was coming out, my computer was not powerful enough to track it down. I was just able to do that recently, when cartoonist Brandon Graham tweeted a link to a Youtube video of the first episode, uploaded by an account that had only edited 4 of the 12 episodes in the series, only the first two of which were subtitled, and one of these pages had a YouTube commenter making reference to a torrent site specifically set up for anime, which I then had to register with in order to search. Obviously, this kind of search is nothing compared to pre-internet zine/video store/mail-order culture, but in a world of memes that become ubiquitous within a week, the discussion of things incapable of going viral is a very hard conversation to have.

Kaiba is a weird thing to describe the look of: Its character designs are based on Tezuka, its background textures have a computer-aided lushness that is still basically a subtle effect, contrasted to the feature Mind Game, which has a balls-to-the-wall shifting of styles almost analogous to Gary Panter (even though the actual closest parallel in terms of character design would probably be Seth Fisher). Meanwhile, the story being told in Kaiba is a weird sci-fi thing maybe more like something out of Heavy Metal magazine, but everyone who has seen the whole thing (I'm at the halfway point currently) says it is heartbreakingly sad.

There is what seems to be a heavy Moebius influence in Yuasa's short "Happy Machine," which is a contribution to an anthology film, called Genius Party, which, despite the promise of its title, I found to be pretty disappointing aside from the Yuasa piece: It is all about as unwatchable as I traditionally find anime to be. It is worth noting Yuasa's stated influences, annotated on his wikipedia page, draw from a deep well of world animation, placing him into that stream, while his adeptness at strange computer effects, interpolating live-action video, fits him comfortably with experimenters the world over.

I found a torrent for Genius Party on The Pirate Bay, which I've been hitting up recently to find British comedy, which seems equally as strange to talk about in a real-world context. Trying to describe the conceptual precepts behind something like Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is another one of those things that can only be deeply frustrating, but much of what I've been taking in is so dry, dark, or awkward that I find it hard to even describe to myself, to locate where the jokes are: Watching The Thick Of It, I don't even feel like I'm watching a comedy so much as I am watching a drama where I'm not invested in the characters' lives because they're all thoroughly unlikable. At least this condition can be explained away by citing its setting, the world of politics; the milieu of Nathan Barley is something faintly recognizable but to the best of my knowledge having no real-world corollary.

One of the few British comedies I've seen recently to make it to the laughter centers of my lizard brain without getting lost in a fog of cognitive dissonance is Lizzie And Sarah, a pilot too dark to be made into a series. I loved it. Written and directed by two women, (Julia Davis and Jessica Hynes) who each play dual roles, as elderly women in miserable marriages and teenage girls, there is a certain free-wheeling quality to its plotting that makes one wonder where future episodes would go, even as it stands alone as a work in itself brilliantly.

(I've also been watching Peep Show, which is similarly based on reasonably recognizable character types, and very enjoyable, but I feel like everyone knows about that already: It's available on Netflix streaming, which is how everyone finds out about poorly-made documentaries, and surely the site's mathematical algorithim has recommended it to everyone who's rated Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm/the original version of The Office five stars, which is to say, everyone.)