On the Radio: Caribou

A few weeks back I had to get up earlier than early to take my mother to the airport. It was another typically fast and emotional visit. As I have intimated before, my mother and I don’t always seem to communicate in ‘real time’. This is symptomatic less of her than of my rather typically closed approach to relationships: I think I am being laconic; I am observed as being distant and unfeeling.

Man or Band? It doesn't matter. D. V. Smith is Caribou

Man or Band? It doesn’t matter. D. V. Snaith is Caribou

On the way back from the airport, swooning a bit from the early hour and senseless thoughts on the fragility of self and the passage of time, I turned the local jazz radio station up to an uncomfortable volume and rolled all the windows down. (Not a cool sight: remember, I am the one in the rapidly aging blue Prius.) Yet, much to my surprise, the local jazz station straight-out gremlins over night and becomes an Indie-Rock madhouse.

Now the thing about Indie-Rock is that it is mostly described by what it is not: mainstream, major label fare. Beyond the boundaries of delivery device and popularity, it can be anything. So, an overnight, red-eye into the belly of the beast will, in all likelihood, be a mixture of depression, delight and digression. For every moment of wonder, there is another Pavement wannabe or Velvet Underground worshiping poseur.

After languishing through some local act falling somewhere between Stevie-Ray Vaughn and the post-breakdown side of Daniel Johnston (seriously if you don’t know Daniel Johnston and want to be Austin-hip, check out the fine documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston) this track came on:

I love everything about this song from the name (“Every time she turns about Its Her Birthday) to the fantastic rhythms, free-jazz inspired horns, and especially, as anyone who has read this blog before can imagine, the indirect and almost incoherent lyrics:

Spinning round you weigh me down
Gravel hands of green and brown

In your cells both red and white
On the sun that gives us light
In your cells both white and red
From the mouth our kids get fed

Now, what I also love about this track is that there is an essential compatability of sound and lyric-sense–both are fluid, mixed and, for lack of better descriptive, cloudy. The music is somewhere between jazz, rock, and ambient while the lyrics are slightly post-modern and impressionistic. Both, and especially together, invite interpretation and contemplation.

Of course, before it was dawn, I had downloaded the whole album Up in Flames by Caribou who used to be called Manitoba. Caribou, I discovered, is not a band but a man masquerading as one with all the skill of an Aphex Twin blended with a Beck unsullied by mainstream success. The album? One of the most interesting and challenging compilations I have heard in a while. The music is thick and layered, like a sonic parfait doing battle with a milkshake. The lyrics are exceptionally oblique and always wrapped up or buried beneath steppes of rhythm and sluiced by horns.

I thought I had heard of the band Caribou before and bad the mistake of dismissing it as some Train wannabe or fringely progressive one-off. I am so glad I was wrong.  Before that morning, the only musical Caribou I knew about was this one I have heard my brother singing to many times before:

I can’t say that I understand what is going on in Caribou’s music or lyrics; I can say that I will try to. I can also say I am thankful to the randomness of the universe for giving me this song at that time. It took me away from myself and the monotonous road. It took me away from that marginal and displaced feeling in between the end of someone’s visit and the resumption of ‘normal life’. And, whatever normal life is, it saved me from that for a bit too.

Hungry for some more Caribou, my brother?

 

Love and the Lumineers

In the hit single “Hey Ho” from their debut album, the lead singer of the Lumineers declares that he can write a song (“I don’t know where I went wrong / but I can write a song”).  The album that contains this line proves the claim to be both hubris and truth. At least two of the songs are transcendent. Others are less than overwhelming.

After my brother posted his confession that he had endured terrible music all day just for the chance of  hearing “Hey Ho”, I decided that I should take a listen. Now, rather than telling me it was a good song and insisting I might like it (perhaps fearing another Gotye incident), my brother posted an entry about the song and left me to my own devices.

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Reggae

I feel like most people  who say they like reggae don’t really mean reggae, they mean Bob Marley. Now I don’t mean everyone because there are wide swaths of folks into Ts and the Maytals, Burning Spear and a slew of other reggae acts. I mean middle America, the rank and file citizenry–they know only Marley in my experience.

Marley should be credited for bringing the music to the masses. However, reggae as a form  itself doesn’t get enough respect and I think that it should. It may not be developed to the level of blues or jazz, but it hasn’t had the time either; reggae as we know it hasn’t been around that long. Even jazz wasn’t even considered an art form for a long time and was eschewed by the music buying masses as “race music”. (Now it’s turned into this slightly snobby type of thing that only the intellectual elite can enjoy, but that line of thought is for another day.) Reggae, enjoyable to listen to and socially aware at times, demands respect.

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Good Bad Music?

 

“Electronic dance music (E. D.M.) is the ungainly name for a genre so wide it almost defies description”, writes Sasha Frere-Jones in his piece “On the Floor” in the most recent issue of the New Yorker. In this he picks up on a theme that he has been trumpeting for years as he followed the rise of Kanye West and Lady Gaga. (See, for instance, this early review of Gaga:  or this early identification of the ‘marginal phenomenon’ ). He discusses the origin of the genre in 1980’s dance clubs and, along the way, mentions artists like Deadmau5 and Daft Punk. The appeal and influence of a band like Daft Punk, he suggests indicates the permanence and ‘validation’ of this genre.

But, is dance music a genre in the traditional sense? The qualities and shape of these songs seem almost too far flung too be coherent (although the same could be said for rock n’ roll.) True, Frere-Jones does well to outline the common beats and shared instrumentation (categories that serve to distinguish, for instance, reggae from rock); equally useful is his focus on the use or venue of the art form. The form’s translatability from performance space to radio and its influence on pop in all likelihood strengthens its identification as a self-contained genre.

What I don’t get from the article, as is typical from Frere-Jones’ work, is how he feels about E.D.M. and its conquest of the air waves. (This is Frere-Jones’ talent as an writer—he can write descriptively and persuasively about any artist or genre.) Why do I want to know how he feels? Because I respect his ability to articulate the nature and nuance of music, I yearn to hear more about his taste (in the narcissistic hope that it will be like mine…)

I really despise E.D.M. I do not despise its artistry or even the accomplishments of its greatest practitioners—but rather, its effect on pop music and its watered-down ‘offspring’. At its worst, it offers cheap, disposable and forgettable music. Good for a night out, but ultimately bereft of the traction and gravity that makes for good memories and transformative meaning.

When it comes down to it, I am probably the one who is inflexible and expects too much.

What do you think, my brother? Am I being an old fuddy-duddy? Do I expect too much and credit too little? (And, whatever the case, check out the work of Mr. Frere-Jones.)