Beautiful Noise Reaches its Funding Goal!

With barely a day left to go, the documentary project Beautiful Noise has reached its crowd-funding goal of $75,000. I’ve been excited about this project, but like a lot of music fans, I’ve also been watching it with one eye shut – a week ago, they were many thousands short of their funding goal. So, merry Christmas to me: I get to blog some good news about it!


Check the kickstarter page for producer Eric Green’s summary of the project. It’s a documentary about the ‘shoegazer’ movement in early-90s guitar rock. Through interviews with the people involved, concert footage and commentary, Green explores that style and its continuing influence. If you read this blog, I don’t have to tell you this is right up my alley. I’m one of those people who’s always said shoegaze was an under-appreciated movement. For the record, though, I’m as surprised as anyone that the fans managed to scrounge 75 grand.

The punchline? The money isn’t for producing the film. The actual production and interviews (which include Trent Reznor, Robert Smith and Billy Corgan, among others) have been complete for quite some time. No, the $75,000 is what the producers need to license the music. Let that sink in. The rights to include a few tracks from Chapterhouse, Slowdive and Cocteau Twins are so expensive, twenty years later, that the costs nearly derailed a project that only exists to celebrate those bands’ influence in the first place. That just might tell you everything you need to know about the place of the recording industry today. But from another perspective, it also makes Beautiful Noise the very best kind of example of what crowd funding can be: a bridge over the mud of lawyers, licenses and other roadblocks, where fans and creators can put their resources to work.

As of ‘press time’, there are still 29 hours to go, if you want to be a part of the kick-start. But the initial goal has been met, meaning it should be full-speed ahead to release. I’ll bring the popcorn.

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Kasparov on Artificial Intelligence

I enjoyed this article on the New York Review of Books website, excerpting an essay by the chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov from the book Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind. In it, Kasparov talks a little about the ways the game of chess has changed, in the era in which computers have been consistently able to defeat top human players. I particularly liked this quote, about his own loss to IBM’s Big Blue in 1997:

It was an impressive achievement, of course, and a human achievement by the members of the IBM team, but Deep Blue was only intelligent the way your programmable alarm clock is intelligent. Not that losing to a $10 million alarm clock made me feel any better.

It’s rare to find well-reasoned articles on the way artificial intelligence affects our culture; the sensational is always so close at hand, and the real is so hard to get at, who can blame writers under time pressure for pointing to Terminator scenarios over… well, subtle changes in the way a thousand-year old board game is taught, for instance? You could call the comparison to an alarm clock sour grapes, but it seems pretty accurate. He observes very saliently, for instance, that Big Blue worked largely by analyzing a database of games played by human players. I think Kasparov has unique credentials for discussing the difference between the way humans and computers “think”. But what I find most refreshing is that he’s more interested in seeing the present than in seeing the future.

Stories about artificial intelligence running wild can be good literature, just like Frankenstein or Pygmalion made good treatments of the same themes. Meanwhile, though, are we any nearer to an operational definition of intelligence than we were a hundred years ago? Has our experience solidified the Turing test and Kurzweil’s “singularity” into meaningful milestones, or just atomized them into ideological mist? I worry that we’re being led to ask the wrong questions. While we’re waiting for the science-fiction scenario where computers gain their own intelligence, they’re already being used to impose new systems of authority over ours. Maybe we ought to listen to what chess players have to say about the experience.


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Toys, Hypotheticals, and Crystal Castles

By way of gadget lust and preamble, let me share something with you:

Kaoss products

These are both KORG goodies. (The image is from a promotional video you can visit here, if you’re curious.)  The one on the left is the Kaossilator Pro, which is (mainly) an arpeggiator. The touch-screen is for punching in sequences of notes, which loop in realtime though a synthesizer. Kind of like the reel on a player piano, really. Is it a musical instrument? Sure. Only  a “grandpa-guitar” purist would say otherwise.

The gadget on the right, which has a very similar interface to the arpeggiator, is the KaossPad 3, and it’s (mainly) an effects processor/sampler. It applies things like delays and distortion to audio signals, and maps the parameters of those effects onto the touch-screen. That is to say, it only messes with sound from other sources. I’m sure KORG saves a little on manufacturing by using the same case for two products, but something about the parity of controls between these two devices really tickles something in my brain. It’s a design that throws a lot of history out the window, and it pushes the question in a weird way. Is an effects box with a slick interface a musical instrument? Or more importantly: how might a revolution in tools eventually change our ideas about what music is and does? That argument gets a lot more interesting, not to mention more divisive. And, I think, it’s very much ‘of the moment’ in music.


If the question grabs you, too, you might find Crystal Castles’ III gives especially articulate form to a lot of those hypotheticals. I don’t know what kind of gadgets they have lying around the studio, but in a way, that’s the point: you never quite know what you’re listening to with this duo. As abrasive and distorted as they are, it’s almost a relief when Alice Glass’s vocals roll in over Ethan Kath’s soundscapes. On the new album, as ever, the sounds are both deeply expressive and painfully loud. And what I like about III is, more or less, what I liked about their last album: there’s a kind of confusion in the whole experience, and it forces the listener to judge things in a vacuum of context. You can pick out aesthetic hooks to sentimentality, disillusionment and love, and the beats are occasionally catchy, but in the end, the music is whatever the artists say it is. The twelve new tracks all roll off with a confidence of execution that’s hard to argue with. We may have plenty of noisy, high-tech post-pop, these days, but there’s nothing else quite as sure on its feet as Crystal Castles.

See the band’s official site for albums, samples and merch

More info about the Kaoss product line at KORG

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Drive-thru: the masquerade…

Sometimes I like to fantasize that I’m a consultant, whom companies can hire to get ‘honest opinions’ about their customer service. Not my most exciting imaginary career, of course, but I did innovate the ‘no eye contact’ option for Apple Store customers, and a mandatory ‘hasty apology’ button for those automated-checkout machines. (Because, admit it: “unexpected item in bagging area” would be fightin’ words, if a human being said them.)

But the thing that brought this up most recently was a drive-through. Like most people, I eat fast food just a little more often than I’d like anyone else to know, which isn’t often. But, enough that I would form an opinion. And the opinion is this: I understand that drive-thru cashiers are trying to create a friendly, familiar atmosphere, to make customers feel at home. But do we really want to feel at home in a drive-through? (Pardon me: a drive-thru.) So, here’s my suggestion, at absolutely no cost: If you really want to flatter me, pretend you have never seen me before. Help me keep up the illusion that this is an aberration. A grim, shameful compromise, made in the heat of the moment, and never to be repeated.

For instance, instead of asking things like “can I interest you in one of our new steak dipper combos today?”, try a more basic introduction. Like “this is your cashier speaking.” (Airlines do this. Don’t you want to be like airlines?) If you must make chit-chat, avoid asking me how I’m doing today – there’s a clear implication that you’re plotting trends based on the other days I’ve stopped by. And instead of “hope to see you again real soon!”, try “farewell, brave traveler.” Or “long shall we remember this day.”

And finally: never, ever ask me “does your order look correct on the screen?” You’re implying that, not only am I about to eat the centrifugally-homogenized chicken lumplings, but I’ve ordered them so often, I  can actually double-check the cashier’s work. This is not my job. My job is to pay you, eat the food, and destroy the evidence.

Now, if I can just get Barnes & Noble to let people reserve couches, I’ll be getting somewhere…

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Jessica Pratt’s self-titled debut

Jessica Pratt’s new self-titled debut album achieves that difficult feat of seeming timeless, from the exact vantage point of its release date – Call it forced perspective in the medium of cultural reference, maybe, but the album stands as a beautiful piece of ethereal folk-rock. Critics seem to be searching for just the right Stevie Nicks comparison, and for my 2 cents, it’s Stevie Nicks covering Hope Sandoval. Comparisons aside, though, it’s a unique album full of warm charm and nostalgic transportation.

Jessica Pratt (self-titled)

There are two things about the record, more or less independent of the music, that strike me as significant: first, the ‘engineering’ of the recordings is superb. I feel like the state of technique and technology in recording has reached such a high crest, lately, that it forces some questions about ‘the hand of the artist’. Here’s an album that doesn’t mind having its mic placement and its reverb scrutinized (as well it shouldn’t.) And second, the story goes that Tim Presley (of Darker My Love and White Fence) actually started a label, Birth Records, for the sole purpose of launching this album. What that actually means is up for grabs, but I think it’s a signpost in the ongoing story of labels and record companies becoming more and more abstract concepts – and falling more and more under the control of musicians.

Check out the single “Night Faces” below, or get the album here. A great record for a long winter.

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Yeah, but: in defense of A Place to Bury Strangers’ “Worship”

The August 2012 issue of Uncut ran a brief review by Graeme Thomson of A Place to Bury Strangers’ new full-length album, Worship. Thomson’s knack for essentials and his bullshit detector are both gifts to the music-listening public, but his write-up seemed generally dismissive of an album that deserves more column inches than it’s been given. As Thomson concludes on a few tracks:

“…their resolve seems to weaken: ‘Fear’ is rather orthodox rock, ‘Dissolve’ Joy Division-lite, while ‘And I’m Up’ repays an ongoing debt to The Jesus & Mary Chain to diminishing effect.”

Without exactly disagreeing with him on any particulars, I’d just add that Worship is also exactly the kind of album that A Place to Bury Strangers’ fans have been waiting for.

Worship album cover

While it is their first full album since Exploding Head in 2009, the brief interim has seen two generously-laden EPs, several singles and a live record. Which, in effect, makes their recording career a nice imitation of their touring life. APTBS is a band that rarely gets to unpack the van. And if filling a twenty-day schedule with twenty shows mean they have to play a few taco shops and coffee houses in between big-room sets, then that’s what they do. I think that’s partly work ethic, but it’s also their answer to the call of celebrity in the present age. Musicians and their fans live in a shrinking world, and one result of that shrink is a hunger on the part of fans to get ‘inside’ a band’s work—to occasionally peek behind the curtain, say hi, and see what’s new. APTBS are light on artifice and heavy on sound, and I worry that’s occasionally misread as an amateurish quality.

The criticisms of borrowed inspirations also seem, to me, to miss the point. That APTBS owes something to The Jesus & Mary Chain or Joy Division is descriptive, but it’s worn on their sleeve. In fact, with the dissolution of Sonic Youth, APTBS may well be next in the line as vanguards of the noise-rock sound. Maybe it’s a small tribe, but it could do far worse for pathfinders. All accusation that the band is struggling to pay it back notwithstanding, they’re doing a damned good job of paying it forward.

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My ‘Best Of’ Round-Up from Sasquatch 2012

I’d been looking forward to this year’s Sasquatch Festival for a long time, and I’m happy to say it was just what I’d been hoping for. I’ll admit I got tired of the ‘festival’ part of the festival—walking through a knee-deep crush of drunk, sunburned, half-naked college kids to pay $13 for a PBR got old after about a day, but hey—I went to see a ton of good shows, and a ton of good shows is what I got. Right now, I’m in that comfortable spot in festival recovery where I have my hearing back, but my legs still insist I stay on the couch, so I thought it’d be a good time to write down some impressions from the festival. (In a convenient ‘awards show’ format, even!)

Without further ado: Charlie’s Best-Of awards from Sasquatch Festival 2012.

Best use of a huge stage: Bon Iver. The band had a well-attended set at the main stage, Sunday night, conveniently following M. Ward, The Head & the Heart and Beirut to cap a string of big-name indie-rock sets. They filled the amphitheater, and they filled out the stage pretty nicely, too, forgoing the festival’s default lighting rig in favor of their own draped sculture, which dressed the stage to the rafters and added tons of visual appeal to their light show.
Runner-up: Tenacious D, for the ‘rising phoenix’ sculpture that really, really looked like a dick. Bonus points for dressing one guitarist, at various points, as both a sasquatch and the devil.

Expectation most defied: Tune-yards. Their work has an interesting ‘post hip-hop’ leaning, in that they take inspiration from sample-driven styles of music, but perform it all live. Seeing them on stage drove that point home, and earned them a lot of respect from the crowd, including me.
Runner-up: M. Ward. Someone I closely identify with the trend towards world-weary, lugubrious hipster indulgence just happened to throw down one of the most rocking sets of the day three. My sweetheart and I were in the pit for that one, and couldn’t resist dancing to his cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On”.

Expectation best met: Mark Lanegan. He was the top of my list of reasons for going, this year, and his set got my festival-going experience off to a great start. True to form, he greeted the audience with almost total indifference, railroading from one song to the next without so much as a ‘hello’. But the songs were fantastic. His set focused on tracks from his latest album, but mixed in a few songs from earlier in his solo career, too. The fanatical crowd that makes up the first few rows at any Lanegan show made a strong showing at Sasquatch, and Mark didn’t let us down.
Runner-up: Spiritualized. During a conversation about favorite UK bands, a campsite neighbor told me I had to catch Spiritualized’s set. I have no excuse for not knowing their music already, since they’ve been doing exactly my kind of ‘space-rock’ for over 20 years, now. My neighbor’s recommendation was dead-on, though, and their set (only slightly confused by a schedule change to fill in for Mogwai, who canceled late in the festival) was an absolute joy.

Best sound mix: St. Vincent. She/they put on an all-around great set, Saturday night, for an appreciative crowd. Much credit to the band, and to the sound crew for getting every note through the PA in a sharp, clear mix. Festivals aren’t known for great sound mixes, and there were a few stinkers at this fest (notably Shabazz Palaces, whose sound techs seemed totally unprepared,) but for the hour St. Vincent took over the stage, the mix was pitch-perfect.
Runner-up: Explosions in the Sky. Their brand of ‘pedal porn’ free-form noise rock is notoriously tricky to mix live, but the crew at the Bigfoot Stage pulled it off in aces Friday night. The fireworks going off during the end of their set were really from Girl Talk’s stage show, but you could be forgiven for thinking they made a better fit for Explosions’ set.

Most pleasant surprise: Poliça. Considering the amount of ink spilled over this band lately, it’s hard to believe they just put out their first album in February. I’m a firm believer that the true test of any electronic rock act is in their live performances, and I’m pleased to report that Poliça on stage is every bit as tight, expressive and charismatic as Poliça on record.
Runner-up: Alabama Shakes. Uniting a folkie band under the driving Motown chops of vocalist Brittany Howard, Alabama Shakes can kick out tunes that get right under your skin. I was fortunate to catch part of their main set, and their later acoustic set in KNDD’s tent, and I wouldn’t miss a chance to see them perform live again.

Most welcome trend: Popular rock finally getting back some traces of 60s bar rock, as exemplified by The Sheepdogs, Deer Tick or Black Whales, among others. It’s nice to hear that sound thriving.
Runner-up: Grown-ups on stage. One of my long-standing gripes with my fellow music listeners is our habit of tuning people out once they reach their mid-thirties. Even ignoring vets like Spiritualized or Wild Flag, the median age of performers at this Sasquatch seemed refreshingly adult.

Least worthwhile use of Michael Lerner: Portlandia. I heard a lot of griping about Portlandia’s audience-participation set on Saturday, and I tend to agree that, for a comedy set, they managed to pass the time with a minimum of comedy. But the worst part, for me, was watching Telekinesis’ Michael B. Lerner wait behind the drum kit at the back of the stage, just sitting there. I can’t help thinking it would have been a better set if Fred & Carrie had just wandered off and let Lerner tear it up.

Most surprising trend: The enormous preponderance of Gibson guitars on stage. I’m as big an SG fetishist as anyone, but I can’t remember the last time I left a festival thinking Fender had been under-represented. What’s up with that?

So, thanks for reading, and if you were one of my fellow attendees this year, thanks for sharing a great time!

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