Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » June
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I should start by saying that, of course, my girlfriend and family are some of my favourite “things,” but I’m not the sort of person that would like to write that into a top ten list. That is a bit too soppy, and I have to think of my image as an angry art punk (whatever one of those is), so here is a top ten excluding those closest to me.

STEWART LEE: Stewart Lee is a comedian I have liked since I was 15, and he is the first comedian I ever saw do standup on a stage. I loved the way he acted so aloof, like he genuinely didn’t give a fuck. I just presumed that’s how you had to act onstage. So, I suppose in that way, he has been a bit of an influence on the way I perform onstage. He has always been amazing, but something happened to him over last few years that’s made him even better. Perhaps it is just that now he is in his forties, he is more believable as a grumpy curmudgeon. Stewart Lee doesn’t so much tell jokes as tell long, fiercely intelligent stories, repeat himself  and bait the audience, all whilst commenting on what he is doing. Actually, that description doesn’t really do him justice. He is brilliant – seek him out, and if you don’t like him, I don’t like you.

KEITH TOP OF THE POPS: Keith produced our first single, “Formed a Band,” and our second single, “My Little Brother/Modern Art.” We ended up using him as we had to cancel a session we’d booked with someone else due to Mike, our drummer, being mugged and having to go to hospital. Now, I love Mike dearly, but I am very grateful that happened to him, as if it hadn’t we wouldn’t have met Keith. He wrote the “stay off the crack” line I sing at the end of “My Little Brother,” and has in many ways been the patron saint of Art Brut ever since. He looks after us when we go mad, offering us his shoulder to cry on, cups of tea and places to live. He is brilliant and has his own album out soon under the guise of Keith Top Of The Pops and His Minor UK Indie Celebrity All-Star Backing Band. There are millions of guitarists from other bands playing on it, and seeing it live is incredible. At each show, he has 20 or 30 people on stage with him all playing and singing along. The songs are great, though, and would work if they were performed with just one guitar or even a cappella.

VESSEL: Vessel is the lead singer from David Devant and His Spirit Wife, who are absolutely my favourite band, beyond a shadow of a doubt. All of the first lyrics I wrote came from me just emulating them, really. I didn’t realize how much I had actually borrowed from them until I recently looked through some old music magazines. If you had made a checklist to compare me with Vessel it would have looked like this: Pink shirt? Check. Silver boots? Check. Thin pencil moustache? Check. Beautiful singing voice that sounds like David Bowie? Um, he is also a lot thinner than me. I’ve since become friends with Vessel, and he is just a great person to be around because he is always involved in some sort of creative endeavor. If he’s not painting, he’s writing, making short films, or recording songs. Now being around someone who is so prolific all the time sounds like it might be annoying, but for some reason with him it’s not. It is infectious. I always come away from hanging out with him feeling fired up about writing songs or making something.

TEA: Tea is brilliant for a number of reasons. I like the fact that there is a tiny bit of effort involved. Boiling the water, waiting for the teabag to brew, throwing the teabag in the bin, adding milk. It is like making a potion. All the effort is brilliant, too, for when you fancy getting away from talking to people. You can just say, “I’m just going into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, does anyone want one?” then when you get there, you slowly boil the kettle and get some time to yourself to think, maybe write some lyrics in your head, and then at the end of it you get a delicious cup of tea.

WALKING: It’s good exercise, free, you get some time by yourself, you can write songs in your head or listen to music on your iPod and you end up in a different place when you’ve finished doing it (or the same place if you do it twice). Brilliant.

COMIC BOOKS: Comic books are mainly about dudes with super powers fighting crime (or worrying about their place in existence, if it’s a Marvel comic). What’s not to like? Plus, Batman is the greatest fictional character of all time. No argument.

PAINTING: I really enjoy painting. I realize I’m beginning to sound like an anti-social curmudgeon, but it really is a very polite way of getting some time to yourself. Without wanting to sound like a hippie, I also love the trance-like state I can fall into when I’m totally engrossed in what I’m making. I love painting great big thick black lines of acrylic paint on canvas. I don’t paint very complicated things, just simple images and words really. Nothing ever comes out the way I intend it to, probably because of my Dyspraxia, so I’m always surprised at how they turn out.

THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS: I’ve never really liked any sport before. I don’t have the attention span for it. Plus, watching any British sport just reminds me of being shouted at in the rain by sadistic PE teachers growing up. That’s why I like basketball – I have no frame of reference for it and it is a very fast game. I’m a Lakers fan, and am obviously incredibly disappointed at them losing so badly and in such a terrible way recently. But now when I say I like them, at least people won’t just think I’m saying it because they are the best team in the NBA, as at the moment they are clearly not.

SAKI: Saki is an Edwardian author. He is hilarious; just remembering stories of his I have read makes me laugh out loud. I think his description of a thief as having all the habits of a collector but none of the etiquette is just perfect. I have always liked Saki. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. I also can’t imagine myself picking up a book by an Edwardian author. I must have been drunk. I’m very glad I did, though

CHOCOLATE: Chocolate is delicious and can either be comforting if you’re feeling a bit down, or if you need to get stuff done you can eat loads of it with a big mug of sugary tea and whiz around off your tits on sugar and caffeine and get everything done in double time. I couldn’t have written this without a Kit Kat and a couple of cups of tea.

Eddie Argos (pictured center) is the lead singer of the British post-punk band Art Brut, who just last month released their fourth album, Brilliant! Tragic! (Cooking Vinyl/The End). He also performs in a number of other bands, including Everybody Was in the French Resistance… Now!, who released Fixin’ the Charts: Volume One, their debut album, last year (Cooking Vinyl). In addition to music, Argos is a painter and writes a column about comic books.

Photo Courtesy: Tell All Your Friends PR

Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series has, over time, created a space for performers to come together in striking combinations. Ever hear El-P helm a jazz group? You can. Pianist Matthew Shipp, basser William Parker, and Anti-Pop Consortium, however, are the only repeated offenders in the series. Well, not all of Anti-Pop. The earlier entry from 2003, Anti-Pop vs. Matthew Shipp, found each member of the trio (Beans, High Priest, M. Sayyid) presenting and contributing work. For Knives from Heaven, M. Sayyid is noticeably absent. But whittling the Anti-Pop trio down to a duo allows more mic time for both Beans and Priest, who’s actually billed as HPrizm on this release. Almost immediately, the MCs make the arrangement seem like a good choice.

Opening the disc with a digitally augmented Shipp piano track wasn’t a bad idea and provides ample entry into the following effort, “Half Amazed A/B.” Priest takes the first verse only to be overshadowed by Beans’ mastery during the last minute-and-a-half of the song. In any other situation, Priest/Prizm would be the star. It’s just hard to dominate a track following or preceding Mr. One Stripe Red. A bit of odd production work spreads out over the next two tracks, finding all involved adding in instrumentation or programming. It’s not the only instrumental stretch to get through, making portions of Knives from Heaven a bit too left-field for those still bumping Big Pun albums. Instead of working up a narrative or commenting on a specific societal issue, Priest repeats the phrase “This is for my brother, the Wind/Shout Out to Him/Water, Earth, Ether and Fire, my blood kin” for two minutes as a solo feature. The approach might be the rap equivalent to Coltrane reiterating the same melodic progression on “Om,” or any other release from after 1964. Whatever the theoretical backing, Priests’ performance on “This is for My Brother, the Wind” doesn’t seem to have a hip-hop antecedent.

Thirty Ear being so confident as to go in for a second time with these players is pretty easily bared out in 40 minutes and 20 tracks. Anti-Pop was, for a time, one of the most exciting groups in rap, their brief dissolution only solidifying that fact. And regardless of Sayyid returning to the fold for the bummer that was Fluorescent Black (Warp, 2009) while abstaining here, his cohort proves that in pretty much any configuration, there’s enough talent to engorge any track with hooks and intelligence.

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ve been reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews. This is one of those.

The soundtrack for the first season of the HBO comedy series Bored to Death, which stars Jason Schwartzman as a disillusioned, pot smoking writer turned unlicensed private detective, offers up a great selection of previously recorded songs by (mostly) well known indie rock artists. The overall milquetoast mellow pop mood of the collection is set by standout names like M. Ward, Andrew Bird, Lykke Li, and Tobias Fröberg, making this soundtrack a nice musical accompaniment for a coffee shop, small dinner party, salon, or something of the like.

It is probably safe to assume that if you’re a fan of the above named artists, you already already own the songs found on this soundtrack. However, if you’re the kind of person in need of exposure to a great sampler of modern indie pop and rock, then this is a good one to pick up. For instance, fans of The Beach Boys will enjoy The Explorers Club song “Forever,” which sounds like a spot on Pet Sounds outtake.

There are a handful of things in this collection that are a distraction to the overall feel of this soundtrack. First is the song “Bored to Death,” by Coconut Records, aka Jason Schwartzman’s band. It’s a sort of swinging jazz number sung in a silly lounge style by the Bored to Death star. I know it’s the show’s theme song, but in typical HBO series fashion, it’s God-awful and would be embarrassing to be caught listening to on it’s own, and even worth skipping over. Second are songs by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, TV On The Radio, and Arling & Cameron. As good as these tracks are on their own, they’re just too rocking to fit this mix, which make a splash in otherwise glassy waters. Third and final are the one-liners from the show which are squeezed in between the majority of songs. It’s a trick that works it’s way into a lot of TV and movie soundtracks. On one hand, the clips are interesting, funny, and do a decent job of promoting character personalities found in the actual show. On the other hand, the clips aren’t granted their own tracks, instead getting tacked on to the end of songs, which means unless you do some editing of your own, when these songs are added to your iPod and run on shuffle, the one-liners will be there. They just won’t make a lot of sense.

As anyone familiar with Japanese art-metal band Boris should know, surprises come as no surprise with them. Other bands might be content to find an identity and then refine it, but Boris makes a mockery of other groups’ attempts to define new albums as departures with every release. For instance, how many groups would issue a record with the exact same title as another they released nine years before? And then release it alongside an ice cold experiment in electronic pop?

The latter, Attention Please, finds guitarist Wata assuming lead vocal duties for the first time, and her frosty pipes imbue the record with a measure of consistency tying together the cyberpunk trip-hop of opener and title track “Attention Please” and the breakbeat fuzz and otherworldly loops of “Tokyo Wonder Land.” If you’re familiar with Boris from the cathartic and chthonic Pink or even the pierced-tongue-in-cheek metal collaging of Smile, you’ll be shocked to find that Attention Please has no interest in grabbing you by the lapels or taking your head off with buzzsaw distortion. Even the more aggressive tracks, like “Spoon” and “Hope” (which sounds eerily like a D’Arcy-led Smashing Pumpkins outtake circa Gish), are leavened by balanced production and airy textures. The successes here are modest ones, notably “Tokyo Wonder Land” and the laidback but digitally menacing “Les Paul Custom ’86,” while most of the record meanders through ambient territory carried off more interestingly by other bands.

No meandering for Heavy Rocks, though, which kicks off with the grinding “Riot Sugar.” And yes, that’s The Cult’s Ian Astbury moaning “TONIGHT!” in the background. Not content to merely bang their heads, though, Boris incorporate ghostly tremolo guitar and video-game-mimicking synths into their palette, crafting a mishmash of digital experimentation and old-fashioned rock-lock guitar. Despite this tremendous breadth of soundwork (or perhaps because of it), Heavy Rocks fails to cohere the way its 2002 predecessor did. “Window Shopping” sounds like an outtake, a four-minute song with a minute and half of ideas with “GALAXIANS” and “Jackson Head” failing to make an impact, even though they’re two of the heaviest tracks on the album. It lacks the bared teeth of the first Heavy Rocks, and there’s just nothing memorable about the insistent riffage here. Only “Aileron” truly impresses when the crushing weight of guitar and bass on full blast buries the delicate opening in a tidal wave at the 1:32 mark. That overwhelming physicality of sound is what Boris are lacking here, although it’s not clear whether they’ve steered away from it intentionally or accidentally. Since 2005’s superlative Pink, they’ve made more space for a variety of textures, but it’s not clear they know how to deploy them in a compelling way yet. On Pink, it felt like the ensemble were a hair’s breadth away from going completely off the rails, as if the whole clattering machine could explode at any moment. It made the record thrilling and breathless, sometimes terrifying and sometimes beautiful.

Boris are never less than interesting, but they’re at their primal, visceral best when they’re good in the way scratching a nagging itch is good: the sweet relief is always underlined by the feeling you’re also doing damage. On Heavy Rocks and Attention Please, Boris continue to surprise, but largely in a facile, directionless way. The clutch of good-to-great tracks spread across the two albums show off Boris’ restlessness, and there’s every hope that by following their instincts they’ll find a new vein to mine, even if the band never returns to the giddy, face melting of the original Heavy Rocks and Pink.

Note: These two albums were released simultaneously and are reviewed together here, however they are sold separately.

Who is Brian Eno? Is he a self-described non-musician or a composer, technological innovator, world-class hit producer, singer, multimedia artist, ambient pioneer, glam rocker, sound manipulator, theorist, music label executive? He has been or continues to be all of these and more. Since first coming to attention as the flamboyant synth player/sound exploiter for Roxy Music, Eno – given name Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno – has transformed how music is approached, composed, performed, and understood, and in the process he has influenced alt-rock, punk, techno, and myriad other musical genres.

This two-and-a-half hour long unauthorized documentary Brian Eno – 1971-1977: The Man Who Fell to Earth exhaustively traces Eno’s beginnings, from Roxy Music member to record producer to collaborator with likeminded musicians. Oddly, Eno is conspicuously absent: he was not involved in the production and only a few, brief older Eno interview segments are seen. Instead, viewers get often dry interviews with fellow musicians, music critics, biographers, and the like. There are notable people missing: there are no former Roxy Music members, such as guitarist Phil Manzanera, who performed on various Eno projects, nor David Bowie or Robert Fripp, who both partnered with Eno during the 1970s.

This straight-to-video documentary begins when Eno joined glam/art rockers Roxy Music, which Eno was in from 1971through 1973. Initially, Eno operated the mixing board at live shows, processing the band’s stage sound with tape recorders and an early synthesizer. Soon, Eno came out from behind the boards, wearing flamboyant costumes with colorful makeup, feather boas, and other accoutrements – there is fleeting, vintage Roxy Music footage shown with Eno on stage – and he quickly garnered media and fan attention. Eno quit Roxy Music soon after completing Roxy Music’s sophomore record, For Your Pleasure (1973), due to disagreements with lead singer Bryan Ferry and the ennui of life on and off the road. In the film, longtime friend Lloyd Watson provides insight into Eno’s nascent rock star life, including Eno’s sexual dalliances while on tour: while Ferry cavorted with models, Eno was more egalitarian regarding one-night stands. Unfortunately, no one in the Roxy Music camp was interviewed for this film, so the details regarding Eno’s departure are somewhat shrouded.

Eno then embarked on a solo career which did not follow the norm. Eno’s opening foray was a collaboration with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, No Pussyfooting (1973). Eno inaugurated the Frippertronics system, a tape-delay system which emulated minimalist composer Terry Riley’s concepts but were based on experiments Eno did as an art student and during Roxy Music recording sessions. The guitar treatments and looped delays showcased how studio technology could be used as a resource for musical composition. As the film points out, No Pussyfooting was not successful but in hindsight Eno’s undertaking – as well as Riley’s ideas – can be seen as precursors for sampling. Eno’s first solo project, the enthusiastically experimental Here Come the Warm Jets (1974), came out less than a year later. The collection of whimsically doctored pop songs proved avant-garde pop could be accessible, and employed ex-Roxy cohorts Manzanera and saxist Andy Mackay, as well as Fripp and others. The songs were quirky and catchy, with darkly comical subject matter (“Baby’s on Fire,” “Dead Finks Don’t Talk”). While snippets of these and other pieces are heard in the film, at no time do viewers get full songs, which is a loss. Eno also attempted a live tour with English pub rockers The Winkies, which was shelved due to Eno’s poor health. The layover gave Eno time to rethink and he decided to concentrate on studio offerings only. Winkies’ bassist Brian Turrington’s entertaining anecdotes explain what it was like to work on Eno’s second solo release, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974), which uses dream associations, Communist revolution, and espionage to a weirdly compelling effect. In the film, rock music scribe Robert Christgau discloses his enthusiasm for Taking Tiger Mountain, which has an undeniable flow even though the parts careen from the proto-punk of “Third Uncle,” later covered by Bauhaus, to the fiendishly demented lullaby/fairy tale, “Put a Straw Under Baby.”

Accidents are often catalysts for Eno. A 1975 car crash laid Eno up and during his recovery he put a record on his turntable, hobbled back to bed, and discovered the volume was turned so low the music was barely audible. Unable to rise again to turn up the volume, Eno intuitively grasped that music might assume properties comparable to light or color and could be blended into an expressive atmosphere without upending the environmental equilibrium: thus, the idea for ambient was born. Eno’s third release, the sumptuous Another Green World (1975), presented Eno’s new direction. There are a few structured pop tunes (“St. Elmo’s Fire” and “I’ll Come Running”), but most of the melodic material is instrumental music which edges close to Eno’s future ambient experiments. During this segment of the film, former Brand X bassist Percy Jones speaks about the improvisational nature which Eno nurtured in the studio. During the recording for Another Green World, Eno inaugurated the Oblique Strategies cards, and the documentary has an entire DVD chapter where Eno biographer Brian Tamm discusses how Eno used the one-line cards – with non-sequitors such as “Use an old idea” or “Honor thy error as a hidden intention” – to help push or prod when stuck in a rut while composing or in the studio.

Another DVD section centers on Eno’s Obscure label, which ran from 1975 to 1978 to spotlight little-known 20th century classical music and/or experimental material. Eno’s Discreet Music (1975) – which focused more thoroughly on ambient textures – was the label’s third release, while others offered first contact with up and comers such as Harold Budd, Michael Nyman, John Adams, and the Penguin Café Orchestra. However, composer David Toop is the only Obscure label artist interviewed: some insights from Budd or Nyman would have enhanced this part. One highlight is a slice from Gavin Bryar’s sublime long-form composition The Sinking of the Titanic.

Another chapter concentrates on ambient music, with historical information on antecedents like French composer Erik Satie and American avant-garde composer John Cage. During this portion, composer Jon Hassel is interviewed on what ambient means and how the music has progressed. The film wraps up with digressions regarding Eno’s collaboration with German electronic ensemble Cluster; Eno’s production work on Bowie’s albums Low and Heroes (both 1977); and the DVD ends with a look at Eno’s concluding pop LP of the 1970s, Before and After Science (also 1977).

Brian Eno – 1971-1977: The Man Who Fell to Earth covers a lot of ground. The film is packed with so much information it becomes a tiring marathon, partially since the DVD runs two-and-a-half hours and partially since many of the interviews are dull. Some of the chapters might have been trimmed or even included as part of the otherwise sparse bonus section, which has lengthy text biographies on the interviewees and a three-minute Watson discussion concerning the short-lived 801 semi-super group he, Eno, and others participated in. It would have been more meaningful if the producers (who remain anonymous, as does the director) had included video footage of the Roxy Music performances with Eno, longer portions of 801 on stage, or full-length Eno songs discussed during the DVD. Even a full discography and list of Eno’s credits for the 1971-1977 timeframe would have been helpful.

Any obsession probably has roots in some sort of childhood fascination, or at least they seem to for me. Advertising is no different. I can trace my obsession with commercials back to a few childhood memories which have now turned into something I have been studying throughout my adult life, both officially in school and unofficially through reading, watching, and generally paying attention to the gamut of media available to us, the public.

The four earliest products that I can think of where I saw the commercial and immediately ran to my mom to say, “Mom, we need to buy this” were the Ronco Food Dehydrator, the sandwich press (also from Ronco), My Buddy, and My Pet Monster. The first two devices were responded to with a simple, “No, I’m not going to get that for you. You absolutely don’t need it,” and I would promptly come back with, “But you don’t understand, you can make fruit roll-ups and beef jerky,” or “you can make sandwiches that are hot and sealed together.” Luckily my mom didn’t give in and convinced me that I had just been persuaded by the commercial to buy something that I didn’t need. My Buddy and My Pet Monster, however, both ended up as presents at some point. Upon opening up My Buddy and realizing that he was not alive (which wasn’t really in the commercial, but for some reason I had that impression), I tossed it aside, never to be touched again. My Pet Monster I actually still have, and he sits in my room collecting various badges and pins as time goes on. Obviously, I was a gullible child.

It wasn’t long after that that I saw a news program about advertising that broke down the ways that they present things to make them more appealing than they actually are. And there started the long campaign of me being obsessed by advertising. When you actively pay attention to it, it’s impossible not to feel its ubiquity and pervasiveness. In fact, right now while writing this the Phillies are playing the Braves on TV, and there are three ad spots perfectly placed on the screen behind and around home plate. Two are dedicated to Auto Trader, but have changed to Coca Cola during the process, and the middle one has been for Sun Trust without changing.

My current phase started with The Age of Persuasion, which is a textual adaptation of Terry O’Reilly and Mike Tennant’s CBC radio program of the same name. One of the things that I am having a lot of trouble with is determining my actual feelings about the cultural value of advertising. Part of me thinks that it’s a terrible tumor on modern society that truly reflects how superficial and easily manipulated we can be. But then part of me can’t help paying attention to it and sometimes being entertained by it. And then another part of me feels like it’s actually a positive thing, in terms of trying to inform different demographics about certain products and allowing the consumers to offer feedback through focus groups and whatnot on said products, hopefully improving them.

The authors of The Age of Persuasion keep this sort of split opinion throughout their social history of advertising, sometimes bringing up people’s response about loving their show but still hating advertising. However, they themselves are in the advertising industry, both having backgrounds in developing radio advertising for many years. As such, they have a positive outlook about marketing in general, while openly admitting its negative aspects. The writing style is entertaining and engaging, keeping the reader’s attention while also being informative. There’s some positive feedback that you can include in future advertising for the book. One of the pieces of information that had a pretty big impact on me was that upwards of $600 billion is spent each year on advertising, which is more than the US spent in four years on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both of those aspects are significant to me, how much is spent on advertising and how much is spent on war, and the fact that those two things have the budgets they do is what tends to unsettle me.

Part of my personal obsession also lies in Mr. Edward Bernays, who I at least thought I’d come across during the reading, but he is not mentioned. It does make sense, though, considering that The Age of Persuasion is more specifically about advertising whereas Bernays is considered the father of public relations. But both are really two sides of the same coin. I was first introduced to Bernays via the BBC documentary The Century of the Self (based on Stuart Ewen’s 1996 book PR! A Social History of Spin), which focuses on Freud and his daughter and nephew (that’s Eddie!) and the ways  they influenced government and corporate interactions with the public. Bernays is also the author of Propaganda (1928).

So to supplement Persuasion I also listened to Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel (1965) by Eddie Bern-dog (as I refer to him, as opposed to the Burg-dog, in whose texts I’m currently engrossing myself) and again I was met with writing about advertising that really made points that seemed to me to show that advertising was blatant public manipulation, but at the same time maintaining that it was a positive force in society. As Eddie says, “People were saying that what we were doing was propaganda; and it was.” And later he states that he’s always believed what he was doing to be a valuable service to the public.

In listening back to some of Memoirs, there still seems to be this creepy undertone, starting right from the beginning, where Bernays says that his choices out of school were to work in his father’s business or go into his major of agriculture. Instead he went into journalism and eventually started the now standard practice of writing about products and placing them in newspapers. At that time, though, they did it by buying ad space and filling them with what seemed like legitimate articles. Another pretty creepy story is his campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes, trying to influence women to smoke them. The chief problem was that the main color of the packs at the time were green, which didn’t match the clothing that was in fashion. So what they did was to hire designers to make stylish clothing relying heavily on green, take photos of French models wearing said clothes and pass it off as a trend for the newspapers. Green became a popular color and Lucky Strikes soared with the ladies.

And we move on to the last piece that I imbibed with my focus on advertising, which is the recent documentary Art & Copy (2009, dir. Doug Pray). And my own confusion continues. For all the positive things that are included into the making of advertising, and as great and likable as a lot of the people interviewed in the doc come across, this is still the same strategy used to get people like Bush (either one) and Reagan elected to the presidency on account of emotional manipulation through television advertising while purposefully avoiding facts and issues. This is not discussed in detail during the film, but the election of Reagan and its campaign ads are included. Not to say that advertising was void in the presidential elections of Clinton and Obama, but hey, I like them more so I can make peace with that.

My conclusion is inconclusive. After all, as someone involved in magazine writing, a format for which advertising is the main income source, and a fan of the easy money provided by focus groups, I can’t help but be thankful for the copious amounts of money that is thrown at trying to persuade people to buy one product over the essentially identical product by a different brand. But at the same time, I can’t help but imagine what the world would be like if all the money that was spent on both advertising and international fighting were instead channeled towards humanitarian efforts. And honestly that’s not something that I can seem to envision no matter how hard I try.

Over the course of four albums – five if you count the eight song debut EP Whip It On (Crunchy Frog/Sony, 2002) – Copenhagen’s Raveonettes, consisting of the striking duo of Sune Rose Wagner (guitar and vocals) and Sharin Foo (bass and vocals), have defined themselves as the most prominent contemporary purveyors of a Jesus and Mary Chain-inspired noise-pop sound. Like the aforementioned group, The Raveonettes’ records are loaded to the gills with everything one loves in a stellar fuzz rock band: namely, a noisy wall of sound blending with drop dead gorgeous melodies, bringing to mind everything from 1950s rock’n’roll to 1960s girl groups to classic garage and surf rock. So, what’s a band to do when they’re at their creative peak? Try something different, of course.

With the group’s sound pretty much perfected on Lust Lust Lust (Fierce Panda/Vice, 2008) and  In And Out of Control (Fierce Panda/Vice, 2009), it’s not that surprising that they would want to explore new terrain. What is surprising is that Raven In the Grave is such a curve ball, yet still holds its own with everything in their back catalog. On initial listens, one immediately notices that the band’s trademark guitar sound and big drum sound has been replaced by dark keyboard-enhanced soundscapes, bringing to mind the likes of New Order or Radio Dept. Lyrically, Raven is very bleak too, a concept album of sorts about love gone sour, with the words as striking as the music. On “Let Me Out,” Foo exclaims, “How we loved and how we tried and how we fell apart / Let me on out / Let me find someone new,” while on “Ignite” she laments, “I hate what I am now / What if I could die / What if I could make my heart explode / And never cry.” On “Evil Seeds” she declares, “When I’m gone like a raven in the grave young lovers sure won’t spring from these evil seeds.”

Raven is very much a singular body of work. Some individual highlights include the opener, “Recharge and Revolt,” a destined-to-be Raveonettes classic, albeit more in the vein of something like New Order’s “1963” than their typical JAMC-style distortion pop, with Wagner’s strong melodies soaring over a sea of atmospheric sounds. “Ignite” pummels like Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” musically and lyrically. “Summer Moon” is a drop dead gorgeous 1950s-style ballad, while the similar “My Times Up” is even better with Foo’s stirring vocals enhanced by sweet shoegazey sounds, as if Slowdive took a stab at “Sea of Love.”

History hangs heavy over the head of the modern composer. Few other art forms feel the weight of the past so distinctly; rock musicians measure themselves against the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones – a tall order certainly, but still nominally plausible. To some degree, painters face a similar dilemma: imagine wrestling the shades of Picasso or Matisse every time you sat down in front of a blank canvas. But something about the departed greats of classical music has a certain gravitas, a lofty, unflinching seriousness lacking in the raffish legacy of idiosyncratic artistes or louche rock’n’rollers. (Writers have their own special set of language-specific problems, which is all I’m going to say about that.)

Simply put, it’s hard to compete with Beethoven or Mozart, especially when hundreds of years have turned their examples into ossified monuments. To some critics and listeners, the act of composing a modern piece of classical music seems at best kind of pointless, and at worst an act of colossal temerity. Who are we, in this debased age, to match our feeble stabs at profundity against the timeless opuses of the august gray-haired titans?

In a recent article, New York Magazine dealt with the large spate of up-and-coming, largely Big-Apple-based new-music composers. In it, the critic Justin Davidson resurrects a milder form of this argument, alleging that the unprecedented freedom offered by the Internet era has led to essentially toothless work that, while “genial” or “pleasantly varied,” lacks the “violent awe” of Messiaen and his canonized ilk. While I don’t have anything against Messiaen’s cerebral epiphanies, using him as a cudgel with which to keep the kids in their place doesn’t do either party any favors. Davidson’s article focuses on a slew of young prospects: TYONDAI BRAXTON [pictured top], MISSY MAZZOLI, BORA YOON, JUDD GREENSTEIN, and others, all of whom draw from a dizzyingly wide range of influences and genres, and many of whom use electronics in a supplemental or primary sense. There’s certainly no denying that the work of any of these could be mistaken for Mahler, and Davidson’s on to something when he notices a distrust of forceful gestures and a lack of affect in their techniques. But here’s the thing: though music is maybe the least material of the arts, it’s still a response to the world as experienced by the artists. To summon the fanatic rapture of Messiaen in our era of crowd-sourcing and digital dwelling would not only be nonsensical, it might even be kinda unhealthy.

If Davidson’s article had been written 10 years ago (and aside from the details, it could have been), and if I were at the same stage in my musical tastes at that time, much of it would have been beyond me. I’ve only been seriously listening to modern classical works for a little less than a year, which means 2001-me would have only had the time and money to discover a few of the major artists in this area, piecing together knowledge through diligent reading of obscure magazines, clunky, questionably informed websites, and costly CDs received from mail-order firms based in gross basements in third-tier cities. Reading Davidson’s article today, I’d not only heard of all the principals, I’d heard a lot their music, knew some of their personal facts, had seen some of their work performed live, and formed strong opinions on their various hairstyles. Some of this is because I now live in New York, where most of the crew is based, but more so because I spend about an hour on the Internet every day. Thanks to specialty Internet-only radio stations like New York’s estimable Q2, I could discover an artist, hear a wide selection of his or her work, and be directed to a community of like-minded artists and fans… all in the space of a slow workday afternoon. Davidson addresses this point, citing the “virtually infinite thrift store of influences” offered by the Web, but does purely in curmudgeon mode: “A century ago, Bartok had to haul his gramophone through the mud of Moravia to learn about folk music. Now a curious kid in Brooklyn can track down an Azerbaijani song in seconds.” This is certainly true, and it does have hefty aesthetic ramifications, but Davidson restricts himself to the grandfatherly “walked uphill both ways” argument: kids today have it too dad-gummed easy.

If, instead of yearning for the difficult slogs of analog yesteryear, Davidson were to consider just what it means to have instant access to everything, to compose music in a world where music is a fluid, often ephemeral commodity and not a hard-won treasure, I think he’d begin to take his critique somewhere more interesting. The cult of the lonely master, heroically battling the banal conventions of his time – full of “heaving Romantic angst,” in Davidson’s words – has been completely drained of meaning. How can anyone work in isolation when instant connection is only a decent wireless connection away? While this accessibility certainly has resulted in a more tight-knit and supportive community of artists and listeners, it also has a down side; it’s hard to think of yourself as blazingly original when a quick Web search will turn up any number of unknown influences and obscure contemporaries.

I would argue that today’s composers suffer plenty of angst – it’s just not the kind that Davidson is used to hearing. Take, for instance, ARCO, a large-scale immersive symphony by BORA YOON [pictured above], PAUL FOWLER, and PAUL HAAS, which Davidson dismisses as an oddball trifle. A mash-up of sorts – of Beethoven, Arvo Part, and others, as Davidson notes – it’s the sort of conceptually daring, collaborative piece that could only be written in today’s technological climate. While Davidson correctly observes that ARCO is born of techniques that “bypass history and geography,” he fails to see that it’s exactly that lack of context giving the piece resonance, and makes sense of its combination of massive, echoing sound and resolute lack of a dominating voice. ARCO relentlessly surrounds, even submerges you, but lacks a center – it consists of a myriad variety of parts, forming a constantly mutating, impossible-to-pin-down whole. Where Davidson hears something “pleasantly varied” yet extremely “weird,” I hear a surging mass of data and noise, aching to achieve simultaneity, yet also somehow anxious for perspective, a hive mind searching for authority and definition in a world where authority is ceaselessly being undermined and presence is being redefined.

You can hear this post-industrial anxiety in all of the young artists Davidson mentions, from the self-lacerating formalism of JEFFERSON FRIEDMAN to the lunatic experimentation of Braxton or the avant-rock-inflections of MISSY MAZZOLI [pictured above]. These composers, and many whom Davidson doesn’t mention, such as CALEB BURHANS or GABRIEL KEHANE, find meaning and inspiration in the bewildering flux of the information age. We can analyze how this shapes, enhances, and mars their work, but we shouldn’t make judgments according to the standards of a dead era, even if the ghosts of that vanished time are just a click away.

If you only remember Cornershop from their 1997 alt-rock hit “Brimful of Asha,” a sweet, infectious tribute to legendary Indian singer Asha Bhosle, you may not realize that the British band been laying down funky slabs of Indian-inflected Britpop before then and have been ever since. In fact, this collaboration between the Tjinder Singh-led group and Punjabi folk singer Bubbley Kaur qualifies as their seventh album, depending on how you count. It’s complicated.

Due to the collaborative nature of this effort, the proceedings diverge from the path Cornershop’s generally trodden. Gone are the playful, sometimes provocative lyrics, as the entire effort serves to introduce Bubbley Kaur, who sings the whole album in Punjabi, to Western audiences. If English lyrics are abandoned, however, the funk is here to stay, along with jazz, pop, and world music influences – as well as the robust Indian influence you’d expect. Rare it is that an album combines Western rock’n’roll instrumentation elegantly with Indian instrumentation like dholki, tamboura, tumbi, and, of course, sitar. But Singh and his long-time collaborator Benedict Ayres do so seamlessly, even throwing in some surprising Western instrumentation along the way.

Cornershop and the Double-O Groove Of opens with the hypnotic groove of “United Provinces of India,” which sets Kaur’s skipping vocals against rhythmic, repeating sitar. The songs that follow, especially “Topknot” and “Double Digit,” prove just as sinuous, just as delectably catchy. On the latter, rippling bass guitar plays beneath Kaur’s trills, accompanied by twitching sitar. It doesn’t matter whether you know the Punjabi language or not, the song’s gonna slip under your skin. “The 911 Curry” sounds like 1970s action soundtrack fodder with handclaps added in for good measure. Is the “911” a reference to 9/11 or maybe just to the emergency-inducing properties of some flaming hot curry? It doesn’t matter, but, oh, for some translated lyrics. After abandoning a martial-influenced introduction, “Natch” mashes up a traditional tune with funk bass rhythms. The lovely “Don’t Shake It” closes out the brief album and chugs along with piano loops backing Kaur’s gorgeous lilting vocals.

Perhaps the most delightful track here, the wonderfully named “Double Decker Eyelashes,” opens with harpsichord, which recurs against Kaur’s even-paced, soft, steady chirping. Born in New Dehli and raised in Lancashire, England, Bubbley Kaur proves a counterpoint to the incredibly prolific Asha Bhosle, since, if you can believe it, she had never been recorded before this album. Singh basically met her in the ‘hood and the two ended up spending time together, experimenting with different sounds and vocals until the two came up with “Natch.” The band released “Natch” as a single along with “Topknot” back in 2004, and this longer release has been in the works ever since. Singh wanted to create an album like this one for 20 years, saying he didn’t feel the need to rush the collaboration. Let’s be thankful he didn’t, since the result proves a delightfully arranged marriage between old-school Punjabi folk and Indian-flavored Britpop. Stir in some deep bass along with glitchy electronica and you’ve got yourself a glorious, surprisingly organic concoction. And as far as concoctions go, Double-O Groove Of also proves inexhaustibly sweet. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Let’s be honest though: Most Americans aren’t going to listen to this labor of love, simply because not a word of it’s in English. Their loss. This is an effort to fall in love with, so give it a listen. While you’re at it, check out the videos for “United Provinces of India” and “Topknot.” Both are deliriously colorful, joyful affairs just like the rest of the delectable treats served up here.

Are we so deep into excavating various African musics dating to the second half of the 20th century that there’s little left to suss out? With such a huge population crafting music that merges native elements and Western styled rock, soul, and R&B, there’s bound to be a mountain of tapes that trump anything on contemporary dancefloors. So, as an audience detached from the culture creating the music, North American and European fans are most likely only going to be recipients of the higher quality stuff.

If you like one of these repacked deals, you’re bound to like the other two-hundred similarly minded albums sure to be released this year. What’s amusing, though, is the American label system applying names to forms of music it/we/they don’t fully comprehend. Ebo Taylor, a Nigerian guitarist and band leader, now has a compilation entitled Life Stories: Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1973-1980. But the “highlife” here doesn’t sound too much like Solomon Ilori’s African High Life (Blue Note, 1963). And neither does it sound like Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab.

Even the personal histories of all these players becomes fuzzy. Talent’s assessed, studies take place out of whatever country the player’s from – usually folks wind up in New York or London for a bit – and there’s an eventual return to the homeland to dispense a cultivated musicality. Ebo Taylor’s narrative is basically that. He even did time in a classroom with Fela Kuti. Pretty cool, right? Sprawled over the two album’s worth of music constituting Life Stories is proof of the guy’s acumen.

Differentiating Taylor’s compendium from others is the disc culling work the guitarist put in with a number of different groups, occasionally providing for a wildly varied listen. When he’s in the right company, however, it all works out. With Uhuru-Yenzu, Taylor goes in on “What is Life?” It hues towards the Fela side of things and finds success relatively easily. The chorus of woodwinds adds a nice touch, making it all seem like a smooth vocalist is set to enter. Instead, some group-grunted choruses espouse heavy thinking as the groove works towards its natural end. While performing with Super Sounds Namba on “Yes, Indeed,” Taylor ends up accompanying an effort weighted down by some ill advised synthesizer sounds. The song’s success or failure isn’t predicated on the proper assimilation of then-new technologies, though. It’s just that if you happen to enjoy that cheeseball keyboard sound, you might not like afro-funk. And vice versa. Hopefully, this doesn’t suggest the as-of-yet-unmined collective sounds from Nigera, Senegal, or other nations have hit bottom. Everyone’s afforded a few off days. So, Strut issuing Life Stories: Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1973-1980 is gonna work for anyone already engaged with exploring these sounds. Taylor’s not a bad place to start either. Maybe his music’ll even find its way onto a soundtrack to one of Bill Murray’s films.