Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation is Steven Hyden’s crunchy love song to the rise and fall of grunge music. It’s one part nostalgic remembrance, one part music criticism and one part cultural analysis. As somebody came of age in the nineties, the ten-part series has proved a pretty entertaining read. Here’s a sample from part one:
I spent a lot of time that year watching Paula Abdul sing one of my favorite songs, “Opposites Attract,” in a video that prominently featured a cartoon cat. How adorably red-cheeked and innocent is that? As far as I can tell, the video for “Opposites Attract” was not intended to be entertainment strictly for little kids. There was a very good chance that you’d see the video for “Unskinny Bop” immediately afterward. This gives you an idea of how, shall we say, unsophisticated we were as pop-music listeners back then. The video for “Opposites Attract” might not be “(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window?” but like that cheerfully insipid, pre-rock ’n’ roll Patti Page hit of the early ’50s, it signaled that American culture desperately needed someone to wipe that stupid grin off of its face.
I’ve been reading it offline, so I’ve missed all the handy embedded videos which offer a welcome accompaniment to the articles.
Speaking of musical writing, I recently read a wonderful article (PDF) in The New Yorker about Keith Moon. Whether or not you have any interest in drumming, the Rolling Stones or The New Yorker, it’s an excellent piece of non-fiction writing.
The writer, James Wood, makes reference in the piece to isolated recordings of Keith Moon’s peculiar style of drumming. Here’s an example. The song will be familiar to CSI viewers:
It’s easy to imagine a home in 2030 that contains no books, CDs or DVDs. In terms of cultural objects, that pretty much leaves visual art (and, I suppose, tchotchke and knickknacks), doesn’t it? What’s the future of paintings and sculpture? Science-fiction movies would have us believe that our television and walls are converging, so that any vertical surface will become a display. Will that happen? Will we just display, say, a rotating gallery of Picassos on our walls? Or maybe walls will host loops of family videos, or some future version of Facebook, so that the fall is awash in video, photos and text updates from friends and family?
I’d be more confident in that prediction if those digital picture frames had really caught on in a serious way, or if more of our fridges and bathroom mirrors already had video displays embedded in them. But, as they say, the future is always just around the corner.
In the future, will the amount of cultural detritus in a house reflect its owner’s age?
I, for one, really like how our books look in our bookcase. I’m loathe to thin them out when we move, or the bookcase gets too full. They are, as a friend says, excellent wallpaper.
Will your home still have cultural objects in it in 20 years?
I recently found somebody’s list of the top 20 albums of 2010. As I’m always rather behind the times, I didn’t get a chance to sample those I was unfamiliar with until this weekend. This is the list:
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The Black Keys – Brothers
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
The National – High Violet
Mumford and Sons – Sigh No More
Beach House – Teen Dream
Broken Bells – Broken Bells
Vampire Weekend – Contra
Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Cee-Lo Green – The Lady Killer
The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot – The Son of Chico Dusty
Sleigh Bells – Treats
Caribou – Swim
Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
Yeasayer – Odd Blood
Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Jonsi – Go
I went through all twenty albums, listening to two or three songs from each. I’m already a fan of Vampire Weekend, Mumford and Sons and Sufjan Stevens, and I added The Tallest Man on Earth (rather Dylanesque) and Jonsi (ethereal and joyous, maybe less moody than Sigur Rós?).
I was still unmoved by Arcade Fire. I’d heard a lot of praise for The National, too, but I found them pretty banal. Plus, the singer is a total mumbler.
In any case, here are a couple of videos from the new-to-me artists. I am, uh, unclear if the Jonsi video is official or fan-made.
It’s interesting that Kristian Matsson, the man behind The Tallest Man on Earth, is Swedish. He sounds like he’s from Kentucky.
On Monday night, I attended a lecture by Brian Eno at the Vogue Theatre. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Eno is a remarkable polymath–a composer, rock musician, painter, sculpture, producer, writer–but I’ve never really been an ardent fan of anything he’s done.
In broad strokes, I’d say his talk was on “Why I make the art I make”. It began with Copernicus and ended with surfing, and there were many, many points in between. Robyn wrote a summary of his talk, and here’s a piece from the Courier.
I made note of a few interesting artworks or projects Eno cited, and thought I’d share them here:
Terry Reilly’s “In C” was an early musical influence on Eno. It’s a peculiar musical composition, in which musicians play prescribed notes (all in the key of C), repeated as often as they like. While the result isn’t calming, it’s not without a certain, uh, frothy urgency.
Eno referenced several of his own works, including one called 55 Million Cystals. I was, er, in the bathroom for this section, but here’s Eno talking about them on some rather irritating micro-site.
I wrote earlier in this post that I’ve never been a fan of anything Eno’s done. I’ve just remembered that that isn’t quite true. I quite like Oblique Strategies, a set of cards with peculiar little suggestions or quips on them. I often use them as a brainstorming tool. Here’s an online version of the cards.
Barely in control of a big, blond Gibson guitar that squealed and snarled like it was possessed by old Shakey himself, Costello stalked the stage with a flamenco dancer’s élan. Even a ridiculous leopard-skin trilby didn’t undercut his sinister—and, yes, weirdly sexy—intensity; he’d probably skinned that cat himself.
I’m usually disappointed by the grainy, shaky video and tinny sound from this kind of audience recording, but this video actually looks and sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
On a related note, I was delighted to discover this bootleg recording of the entire concert. It doesn’t sound as good as the video, but it’s always nice to have an audio archive of a concert you’ve seen. And it’s certainly better than nothing.
Why have they launched Ping? Friend-powered recommendations are de rigeur these days, from the Levi’s store that enables you to shop for clothes that your friends have liked on Facebook, to the new Vancouver project Recotype. And, obviously, it seems like a good way to get people to buy more music.
I’ve learned not to boldly predict the success or failure of big tech projects. Thus far, I don’t see much value in Ping for me. I don’t think I have a music discovery problem. Nor do I necessarily see my friends as a good source of music that I might like. But we’ll see.
On a related note, Ping feels shockingly unfinished for an Apple project. There was no Facebook integration available when they launched yesterday–surely an important feature for spreading it quickly. Also, there are precious few artists which you can ‘follow’ on the service. I searched for popular acts like Feist, Vampire Weekend or The Killers and came up empty.
Band News, Not Music Discovery
Here’s what I wish Ping could do for me: index my music collection, and generate timely updates via email and RSS featuring news about those artists. When are my favourite bands coming to town? When are they releasing new songs? Where can I find their new video? iLike used to do an acceptable job of this, but they definitely skewed to the bigger, older performers. Maybe another service has comprehensively solved this problem?
This functionality becomes more and more important as we shift to a ‘singles’ music economy, where consumers own songs by many more artists than they used to. It’s possible to keep up with, say, 15 or 20 bands you like, but that doesn’t scale to 50 or 100. Each of those 50 or 100 bands ought to want to have an ongoing relationship with you, and Ping is one place where that could happen. However, I don’t want to use iTunes to get that information, so Apple would have to deliver it in other forms.
Last week, composer Jason Robert Brown had an extended online conversation with a teenager who was illegally downloading (‘trading’, in the parlance of this particular online subculture) some of his published sheet music. On sites like Piano Files, much like the BitTorrent communities, users request and share songs they’re looking for.
The, uh, inter-generational dialogue is worth reading, as is this overview of sheet music piracy written by Georgia Stitt. Though, for those familiar with the current debate on intellectual property, copyright and digital rights, there’s not much new.
It seems like the songwriter and composition world is one that’s been woefully susceptible to piracy for years. After all, sheet music is comprised of short, small documents–they present none of the issues that music and movie files once did. Heck, it’s even easy to photocopy.
In fact, some of the earliest files I ever downloaded from the nascent Internet were guitar tablature, chord sequences and playing instructions for pop and rock songs. They typically looked like this.
I didn’t care, but I don’t think they were technically illegal (I suppose those documents that republished the lyrics in full violated copyright). These had been independently created by fans, not copied from some legitimate source. Many (even most) songs weren’t available in guitar tablature, so these were crowd-sourced solution to the problem.
I still subscribe to this theory of art and copyright: a creator’s greatest fear isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. As Brown points out, you can at least buy his sheet music for a reasonable price at SheetMusicDirect.us. Is that the iTunes Store of sheet music? I have no idea. Though, probably not, because a search for ‘Georgia Stitt’ generated no results. An exhaustive, easy-to-use online store is going to be a composer’s best shot at getting as much revenue as possible from sheet music sales.
Like so many creators, composers will need to rethink their revenue model in a world where it’s easy to make and share copies of their creations.
Coincidentally, today I received a media release for a local production of Brown’s “The Last Five Years” at the Pacific Theatre.
“This Movie is Broken” is two movies in one. It’s a rockumentary of Broken Social Scene’s free live show on Toronto’s waterfront in July, 2009. It’s also a simple romance between Bruno (Greg Calderone) and Caroline (Georgina Reilly). They’re two young Torontonians spending one last night together at the show before Caroline leaves to study in Paris.
It’s an interesting, modestly experimental (I’m stealing that phrase from somewhere, but I can’t find the source now) conceit from famed Canadian director Bruce McDonald. He’s kind of a structuralist, I think. He routinely reminds us that we are, indeed, watching a movie, using different visual treatments or effects (you can seem examples in the trailer) to shape a film’s tone.
I like the idea, in theory, of re-imagining the concert film as a series of scenes integrated into a narrative film. Unfortunately, I found neither the concert nor Bruno and Caroline’s story particularly compelling.
Yell Theatrically Into the Microphone
Though I acknowledge their popularity as a respected central Canadian super-group, I’m not a Broken Social Scene fan. While their stage performance had a warm, friendly vibe, I found their music pretty banal. There’s a sameness to the long, jammy, guitar-driven songs, and, with the exception of Julie Penner on violin, I didn’t hear any particular artistry in their playing or, in particular, their singing. They seem to subscribe to The Arcade Fire school of live performance: get a bunch of people on stage and get them to yell theatrically into the microphone. It’s decidedly unsubtle. This Letterman performance demonstrates some of what I’m talking about.
On an unrelated note, the current version of the band could be renamed Unwise Choices in Facial Hair. The hipster ‘staches and neck beards were on full display.
The film’s story is thin and unfun. Bruno’s pursuit of Caroline is kind of inexplicable, as she comes off as, well, bitchy. She seems to only consent to the data because Bruno lies and claims that he can get back stage passes (when they eventually do, it’s through an entirely unconvincing bit of pleading). Their night proceeds in, really, the most banal way possible.
If you’re a Broken Social Scene fan, then you’ll enjoy the concert footage. Otherwise, give this movie a miss.
But hey, other people quite liked the film. Katherine Monk, somewhat inexplicably, claims that the music had “so many sonic elements and emotional colours” and that the love story showed “the breathless excitement of mutual attraction”. I saw neither.
Elvis Stole the Show
A quick footnote. I didn’t write about it back in February, but I saw a lot of the Broken Social Scene artists playing in a Cultural Olympiad show entitled “The Neil Young Project”. A bunch of indie artists covered Neil Young songs. I was surprised and a little dismayed at how ordinary the evening was–most of the younger performers just didn’t generate much energy or enthusiasm on-stage.
Their performances were brought into sharp contrast when Elvis Costello came on and just ripped it up with “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Cinnamon Girl”. As Alexander Varty at the Straight said, “the crowd, which had been drifting toward torpidity, rose to its feet and stayed there for the rest of the night.”.
That’s apropos of not very much–maybe just that I’ve been underwhelmed by Broken Social Scene twice now.