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Flowers Taped To Pens//Bread Club//Beds//Skull Kid Split Driftwood Records recent 4-way 7” split of Flowers Taped to Pens, Bread Club, Skull Kid, and Beds is a miracle in design and planning. Even if you’re not surprised that split vinyl singles still exist, the fact that Driftwood crammed four bands on a tiny disk is pretty impressive. Driftwood’s pairing of west coast (San Diego’s Flowers and San Jose’s dearly departed Bread Club) and east coast (NoVA’s Beds and Pittsburgh’s Skull Kid) emo is a nice primer of the two scenes and a little bit of a whiplash for the listener.

Flowers Taped to Pens spotless guitar nicely compliments the strained, raw screamo of “I Suppose It’s Just Our Nature.” I’d be the first to admit I’ve been out of the game for a long while but I’ve never heard anything like Flowers Taped to Pens. It’s really amazing to hear the clean chiming of the guitar behind screaming so strained that I initially thought my speakers were short-circuiting. There’s a clean, almost mechanical precision to their guitar work that only highlights the raw emotion of their voices in the same way that the pure and precise movements of a dancer emphasizes the raw emotion they attempt to express. The eager energy, intricate and soaring guitar, and unfiltered emotion of Flowers Taped to Pens feeds directly into the slacker guitar workout of Bread Club.

Bread Club’s straight-outta-Subpop-titled “If Your Song Title Is – If Your Song Title Has the Word ‘Beach’ In It, I’m Not Listening to It, – I’m Not Listening To It” has more than just a titular similarity to the heyday of emo. It’s a bit of a whiplash to go from the emotionally bracing screaming of FTTP and then jump right into sunny, slightly fuzzy guitar and melodic singing of Bread Club but I like it. As an old fan of Dinosaur Jr. and 90’s emo, I can’t get enough of Bread Club’s commitment to hard charging guitar and a cutesy approach. There’s so much to love in the slight 2 and a half minutes of the song! There’s a mini-bridge that feels like a tiny cartwheel in the middle of the song’s sprint to the end, a chance to sing-along to “busting my balls,” and a whole section that is inexplicably in Spanish. It’s a joy, the sound of a highly skilled band screwing around and I haven’t been able to listen to it without smiling.

Beds’ “Sweet Dreams” capitalizes on the good vibes coming from Bread Club with a spacey and poppy intertwined guitar. The earworm chorus nicely covers up the macabre content of a song that sweetly sings “Harakiri” while the multiple (!!) dual guitar and drum breakdowns are succinct and brilliant. It’s calming, spacey, and brisk with a tightness that gets across the high-strung energy of the speaker without feeling claustrophobic. I find myself returning to the song over and over just to hear those firecracker build-ups scattered throughout the relative calm of the rest of the track.

Skull Kid’s “Avenger’s Song” continues the guitar-attack mode of the split with a chorus of voices and an impressive intertwining guitar solo that closes out the track. The band’s descriptions of a panic attack/existential crisis become inspiring and even assuring when paired with the twinkling chorus and an epic outro. It’s the most confessional song on the split and, to me, the most intimate. From the first words “I’m not ready for this yet,” it feels like a shared outpouring of anxieties. The speaker tackles everything from current problems to their fear of death, pulling the listener along as if in a conversation. By the time the guitar comes in and ushers the listener to the end of the song, it’s as cathartic as a late-night conversation with a dear friend. Check it out here or here:

Annakarina – Unceremony


The more I listen to Annakarina’s Unceremony, the more I think Mark Kozlek’s invasive and, frankly, off-putting oral fixation does an injustice to the rise of lead guitar. Initially there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of crossover between the “beer-swilling, commercial shit” that Kozlek takes aim at and a band that has a song named titled Weltzschmers, the German term for that feeling you got when you saw the first Star Wars prequel. Yet, the sheer joy of hearing Jeremy Flynn’s guitar’s best F-Zero impression at the beginning of “Walden Pond” or the dance punk breakdown of “Rocky Sullivan Death Scene” reminds me of just how fun guitar is, dammit. There’s no shame in rocking back and forth to a guitar solo and if I want to start and finish a beer, grab another one and find my way back to my spot during that solo, well, that’s fine with me. There’s a primitive thrill in surrendering to the noise and getting your brains and ears scrubbed clean. So, friends of Kozlek, lend me your beers. Annakarina has no intention to bury the guitar in the mix or otherwise.

“Austere” gentle chiming and slow plod leads into full-automatic bursts of drums that immediately showcase Annakarina’s post-hardcore leanings without too much of a heaping helping of the abrasive experimentation that characterizes the genre. There’s just enough melodic weirdness to carry the listener into “Walden Pond,” which opens with the decidedly post-hardcore couplet of “My Aunt died/ Alone in the shower,” and into the depths of the band’s own brand of catchy and ambitious hardcore. Visions of mathrock danced in my head as “Sunflower, In Nightgown” deceptively straightforward thrashing turned into hardcore and even a quick reenactment of the classic Squeedly vs. Meedly feud immortalized in 80’s metal guitar solos. “Our Fair Oppressors” guitar falls like ribbons over a screen of cymbals, collapses into a haze of feedback, and finally rallies to a dueling bass and drum solo in one of the most enjoyable parts on the whole album.

There’s a sense of movement to the whole album, a physical aspect to the ambition that underscores the songwriting. The songs go somewhere. No matter whether the band starts down familiar alleyways or traces the steps of their identifiable influences, there’s risk-taking and confidence to their playing that always takes their songs just off the path of the familiar. “Rocky Sullivan Death Scene’s” dance-punk outro is maybe the most characteristic Annakarina song: a straightforward and extremely precise post-hardcore track that allows the momentum of the song to determine where the band should go. The goofy digression has more than a passing resemblance to the glory days of Hot Topic and I love that Annakarina embrace it entirely. In a genre that rewards intellectual, challenging, and sometimes cold playing, that silly preppy cymbal ride in the midst of the solo shows that Annakarina knows that their sense of humor and fun doesn’t need an apology or stand opposed from their ambitions.

“Chimeras” contemplative picking and lightning quick runtime is a post-hardcore treat before plunging into “Weltzschmers” all-out experimentation. From the wall-of-text lyrics to the wiggling guitar scales and panicked drumming, it wears its influences proudly. I can hear a bit of Slint in the melancholy bridge, some fist-pumping lyrical emo in the wall of guitars and sincerity. I wouldn’t put it past them to intentionally sound like Orchid to tie their name and Orchid’s famous lyrical inspiration in a nifty, abstruse referential bow. It’s tight, clever, and exhausting, which, by the tone of the content of the next song, is exactly what they wanted. “Successions” is the most characteristically post-hardcore track on Unceremony and one of the nicest. The confessional, uplifting lyrics, coupled with drops of guitar leads into a shouted chorus and a truly gorgeous ambient section that decays into noise. It’s a gorgeous song and it doesn’t really matter that it reminds me the most of other bands; the outro genuinely echo the stirring feelings I get when listening to Mogwai or the more upbeat major post-rock bands. By the time “Litany of Loreto” direct punk finishes up the album, it feels more like a victory lap; Annakarina has already proven that they’re capable of much more than a typical punk track like “Litany.” Still, I love that the band lets the listener come down and take a bit of a break after “Successions” spiritual and emotional affirmation.

Annakarina has made an approachable, clever, and, yes, fun, album. For all those still holding onto a love of emo, post-hardcore and sonic grit, Unceremony gives a reason to proudly defend the guitar in the face of brutish beasts and Red House Painters.


The New Pornographers – War on the East Coast


War on the East Coast

The New Pornographer’s “War on the East Coast” is aggressively apathetic, just like the classic Brit-pop they’re emulating. The chugging guitar at the beginning and Dan Bejar’s vocals have more than a passing resemblance to Jarvis Crocker’s Pulp but its the shimmering synth and infernally catchy chorus that really captures the spirit of its ancestors. As soon as Bejar mentions Stravinsky, a synth line sparkles before disappearing into a swell of guitar and the guitar starts into a gallop. As Bejar pulls back on the reins during the next verse, you can hear the guitars straining against the beat of the drum. As he enters the chorus, he lets go of all restraint and the guitars burst upward and synthesizers billow into great clouds of cool beauty above Bejar’s triumphant “Oh, I don’t care / I don’t ca-are!” It’s a dizzying moment, a triumphant, furious scream to a failed relationship that serves as a rallying cry as much as personal revelation of failure. It’s a fist-pumping sigh, an arena-pleasing painful diary entry, and a perfect summarization of all that made Pulp, Blur, and The Stone Roses a lasting force in modern music (and my personal library).

I think its funny that A.C. Newman lip syncs Bejar words as Bejar plays the stoic badass but I absolutely love that The New Pornographers chose to do a video that not only reflects but also embraces the spirit of their song. The whole indifferent, invincible cool guy image (and that single take!) would absolutely have fit into the Brit Pop scene if it was made in the 90’s.

Bob Mould – March 5 – 9:30 Club

photo 1(2) Seeing Bob Mould was a big deal. Yeah, he’s one of the living legends and pillars of alternative or indie or whatever you want to call the kind of music that has loud guitars, is atypically poppy, and a little bit more difficult and complex than what’s played on the radio. And the tour I saw him on was playing my favorite Mould album, Workbook, so I’d finally be able to see and hear an album and artist that’s changed me entirely. Mould’s music is foundational, not only for the kind of music that I love but also for who I am. He’s an “old” artist of mine, one that I don’t listen to his music much because I’ve memorized most of his work, and as I fidgeted on the rail on 9:30 Club, I hummed as old songs echoed from memories of bedrooms, car trips, and forgotten days. But none of that is why seeing Mould was so important to me. I was anxious and excited because tickets to the Workbook tour were surprise birthday presents to my Dad who, by barking along to Jane’s Addiction, had started me down the crooked road of alternative.

If I trace my love of music – alternative that morphed into indie and then spider webbed out to countless genres – then I can pinpoint its origin to my early memory of walking past the computer room as my Dad worked on taxes and listened to Jane’s Addiction “Got Caught Stealing.” My five-year-old self was very confused and kind of excited to hear my Dad was barking like a dog along with the song. I was confused: How can music have dogs in it? They don’t sing and that’s what music is. And what got my Dad so excited that he would bark? After all, he’s usually so reserved. One of my earliest memories, too, is sitting on his lap and listening to “It’s Too Late” by Bob Mould and singing along. It was weird music. The guitars were a lot louder and went on longer than normal. Mould’s voice wasn’t pretty at all. In fact, he sounded like my Dad. It was big and loud and Mom yelled when Dad would turn it up because when it got too loud, it moved the things in the room. The music touched me, pushing my shirt around and getting into my chest. It was strange and untamed and I remember getting so excited that I started running around the room, feeling the music grab at my shirt, push me around, and shout as loud as me.

Dad has said that Bob Mould is one of his favorite artists of all time as long as I can remember and I knew that seeing Mould was the fulfillment of a nearly 30-year musical goal. He’d first been introduced to alternative in college after falling in love with Squeeze’s “Black Coffee in Bed” and then stumbling into the hardcore, punk, “college rock,” and other budding seeds of alternative while at St. Vincent College. To hear Dad tell it, the most important part of college wasn’t the double degree but a new way to think, feel, and listen. It was his stories of listening to Hüsker Dü, Jane’s Addiction, Dinosaur Jr. and R.E.M. that cemented college in my mind as a haven, a place where “weird” music (and, in many ways, my father) started. As that music changed my Dad, I was also changed by his stories of the music.

My father’s stories, the ways he talked about what the lyrics might be saying underneath just how fun they were to sing, his constant questions about what I thought about the “story” behind the instrumentation, made his “weird” music provocative. As I got older, I poured over Mould and other bands like I would books, slicing them up and “reading” their every note and tone. I fell in love with music because my Dad showed me how to “read between the lines.” In four minutes or so, I could listen to a song and find things just as emotional, intelligent, and challenging as my favorite books. They were stories, tools that I used to figure things out about others and me. Since Mould was one of the first artists who taught me to “read,” to look into why his voice almost cracks in “Heartbreak A Stranger” and figure out why the shimmering “Sunspots” comes before the vicious “Wishing Well,” I love Bob Mould. But I don’t love him nearly as much as Dad, who’s hinted that Mould is what got him through tough parts of his life. I remember one time that he gave me Black Sheets of Rain, saying, “Listen to this to get the darkness off you.” Lemme tell you that album is so angry and sad and dark that I can’t even conceive of how dark and hurt my Dad has been in his life. And I don’t really have to ask, I guess, I can just listen and try to understand my father.

Before I get to the show, I wanted to provide a little bit of history about Workbook.

Mould was the leader of Hüsker Dü, a post-hardcore band from Minneapolis, who ended up to be one of the most important hardcore bands of all time and even laid tracks for alternative music. They started as just a bunch of punk kids playing hardcore and then with Landspeed Record they became one of the fastest bands out there, completely killing any idea of melody for just rhythm and ferocity, stripping music down to its bare essentials and pushing it as far as it can possibly go. Landspeed is one of the most important hardcore albums of all time and the band would have easily lived forever if they had perfected the attack from there. Instead, Bob pushed the band further, creating Zen Arcade, that melded hardcore speed that only they could do with a narrative about growing up that seemed to encapsulate all of the 80’s. Even more revolutionary was its blend of hardcore speed and angular melody with pop songwriting. Underneath all that snarl and anger and noise was a pop song, something fully formed and weird and beautiful. It’s a masterpiece, really. A couple years later and the band exploded, leaving angry feelings and Bob stranded in a rural farm in Minnesota. So, Workbook is the first album after Husker detonated and the first solo Mould album. It’s also a bit of a break-up album as Bob worked through the anger and hurt and heartache of the Hüskers. But how he expressed his anger is what makes the album so important and monumental. See, Bob used to be the fastest gun in the west, tossing out six-shooter shots from his Flying V, blowing people out of the water with the speed and ferocity of his playing. So, you’d think that the first album, which turned out to be Workbook, would be a molten, scathing album, full of volcanic solos and noise, right? Makes the most sense.Bob Mould

The show (and album) opened with the quietest “fuck you” of all time, Workbook’s gorgeous instrumental “Sunspots.” The showstopper originally showed that Bob had moved on, musically and artistically from the Huskers, and it is always awed me. It’s the biggest, most poignant, and most cutting musical move of any artist I can think of. As the album goes on, it is apparent that the acoustic-based album is a very planned statement against his band. It is a show of moving on, growing, becoming more than he was. It is, quite simply, brilliant. “Wishing Well’s” moaning strings and alliterative lyrics followed, slinking into the darkness of Mould’s music with the Hüskers before skipping through shafts of light during the chorus to show that Mould’s moved on but he hasn’t forgotten his roots. The live version was fantastic as Mould hunkered over his guitar, spitting out a stream of notes as if in response for his calls of “there’s a price to pay for a wish to come true.” It’s a volcanic song, one full of pain and regret and anger, and the live version blistered across the stage.

The steady picking of “Heartbreak a Stranger” segued into jangling guitar and a soaring chorus that built and built. By the time the bridge came around and Mould wordlessly screamed after the chorus, I was speechless. I’d always loved the song but seeing it live, with Mould screaming into the dark with eyes closed over the buffeting guitar, I was struck to my core. The lyric’s pain was stark and naked, shifting between moments of clear beauty of Mould’s acoustic and anguish as he sang. By the time “See a Little Light” came on, I was nearly in tears. In concert, Bob played “Light” heavier than the album version, electric instead of acoustic, and the anger and pain behind the song was more apparent. It very clearly was a song about a breakup without the power pop of the recording that masks some of the hurt with beauty. But here it was clear. It was out in the open. As Bob says,

As the years go by, they take their toll on you
Well, think of all the things we wanted to do
And all the words we said yesterday
Well, that’s a long time ago


It was very clear how much he hurt and how painful the whole breakup was. There was no beauty to mask it, just noise and electricity and pain as he saw how much everything soured and how much he screwed up. And I started crying there. It’s such a dead thump as he delivers that last line over the buzz of the guitar and the scream of the cello. There’s no reversing time, no time travel, and he knows that he can’t go back to how it was. He’s sick to his stomach. His guitar screeched and he hurled himself at the strings. He played furiously, as if he was pushing the hurt back into the guitar. He played like he wanted it all back, that he can’t believe that it ever changed. The guitar hissed and spit at the audience as he flung himself at it, moving so quickly and violently that it seemed like he was strangling it, fighting it.

The Black Sheets Of Rain stand-outs “Stand Guard” and “Stop Your Crying” audience sing-alongs were lost amongst the searing noise and roars coming from Mould before the spectacular Hüsker Dü “No Reservations” clawed its way out of the bleak noise lingering at the end of “Stop Your Crying.” Mould had already showed that his music hadn’t lost any passion and his performance of “No Reservations” made it very clear that he also hasn’t lost any of his ferocity. It was vicious, fast as hell, and startling beautiful. As I listened, I was struck by how “No Reservations” drove home Mould’s skill in songwriting. Underneath all the noise and speed, there were gorgeous, sophisticated, and pure melodies. In fact, if I stripped away Workbook’s “Poison Years” twisting guitar, I was sure that it wouldn’t stick out alongside other pop songs. Mould’s been praised and imitated for his musical innovations and unflinching lyrics but I had never considered just how brilliant of a pop writer he was. I’d always thought the next two songs, “Brasilia Crossed with Trenton” and “Sinners and Their Repentances,” could have easily snuck into R.E.M.’s blockbuster Automatic for the People but I’d never seen that they could have also given the other six singles a run for their money.

After “Sinners,” Mould talked to the audience and said that he was very proud of Workbook and the upcoming album. The audience’s reaction was quiet so he joked, saying it’s no big deal, just a lifetime of effort’s accumulation. After he said it, he began to think, saying that the new album is more than just his lifetime, but all the lifetime’s he’s touched, saying that, after all, his art as a musician is to “steal from his favorite albums. Because let’s not be pretentious, all we are trying to do is make something that beats the Beatles. Or the Ramones. Or My Bloody Valentine.”

I gasped. He loves MBV, too? I guess I wasn’t too surprised but I liked hearing him say it. As “Lonely Afternoon’s” bouncing, McCartney-esque bass line started over his squalling guitar, I thought about what it meant that he’d mention the Beatles, a band so synonymous with universal praise that many critics don’t even mention them as influences, and My Bloody Valentine, a band that’s also highly praised but is not universally beloved. I wondered what separated the two bands, why one would appeal to others and not the other. I loved both and thought they were fantastic and heart wrenching and true. I don’t think it’s the music or message that alienates people from MBV or even Mould’s music. It’s the time it takes to understand what is essentially very simple about their music. It’s that some listeners don’t want (or enjoy) spending time to kneel before something, whether it is a book or album, and be defeated and confused for ages until it makes sense. After all, it took me over a year of listening to “get” MBV and I’ve been working on listening, researching, and “reading’ music for half my life.

I thought MBV’s “Loveless” might be the archetype of the kind of music Mould and others play. My Bloody Valentine “Loveless” created something that is utterly detestable, incoherent, and senseless upon first appearance, something that almost guaranteed that the first time listeners will find it unapproachable. But upon subsequent listens and with time, something will change. They’ll understand a part of it; they’ll like a part of it. And then with more time, the album will unlock more as it reveals itself more. And after a very, very long time, it will be fully revealed, that its language will actually be able to be read. Finally, the listener is able to understand the language it speaks. And once you see the language it is speaking, the album becomes not a noisy mess of distortion and anguish but one of the most beautiful works of art ever put to tape and I’m not even being hyperbolic. Then, from there, it is a matter of understanding what it is trying to say and that, thankfully, can take a lifetime. Its an album of infinite reward, infinite mystery and beauty that gives and gives to those who are determined to go back to it, to kneel and work on what it’s trying to say. To those who understand, to those who have the patience, maybe even just the special ones who can get past its initial blast of noise and abrasiveness, it offers an infinite richness. James Joyce can’t be understood in a single reading (hell, there still isn’t any academic agreement on all of Ulysses) and maybe neither could MBV or Mould or R.E.M. or any of those other bands that have had a hold of me for so long. Mould and the concert was a vision of art that maybe others didn’t understand but that was beautiful to me, that made sense to me.

Bob Mould singing
Mould played “Descent” and as he sung about regrets, hope, and music, I thought back to “See a Little Light.” And what he’d been saying the whole concert hit me like a hammer. He’s sorry and guilty and he feels just as sad as he is angry. He’s sad to see anything happen to the Huskers, to others, to himself, even if he thinks that he was wronged. But it doesn’t even matter. It doesn’t matter who did what or what happened. It only matters that he is hurt and he’s in a dark place and he wants his friends, his band, and his purpose back. And he’s on his knees begging them to come back to him. Begging to be told that there’s light at the end of the long dark. He’s hurt and angry but he’s also sad and lonely and he wants it all to come back. As “Descent” picked up, the music began to soar. The song changed completely, switched keys and just lifted up into the air and I felt my chest being tugged skyward as Bob’s pleas to see a little light or to get out of that descent becomes hopeful, confident, and changing instead of just desperate. He CAN see a little light. He knows that there is light. He doesn’t need to hedge his bets or wonder if he’s just making stuff up. And he CAN see the light in their eyes and his question has turned from asking them to confirm if they still care to a statement of fact. He’s moved past his own vision of darkness, the darkness that scares him and hurts him, and he’s opening his eyes, trying to see that light again.

As “Walls in Time” came on, Mould struggled with the same questions I had been asking myself: What’s the point talking if no one understands you? What’s the use of “explaining again and again?” If “flowers, when moved from place to place, lose all meaning, dislocation…” then how can he possibly sing about himself? As if in response, Mould played Sugar’s “Helpless,” which shouts “And now you find as time goes by/ You’re left with nothing meaning much / The meaning I will have to try / To take your mind to places” before the guitar swirls around his chorus of “I feel so helpless.” It’s a powerful, claustrophobic performance but coupled with the last song, Sugar’s “Hoover Dam,” its defeated rumble burst into a confident, exultant yell.

As the audience traveled with Bob from the Hoover Dam to Mississippi to New Orleans, from Hüsker Dü to Sugar to now, from anger to insecurity to confidence, his voice and guitar began to climb. There was light, not only outside the darkness, but inside of him. He’s been “covered with lava and I feel fine / It washes over me / keeps me feeling warm at night;” It’s all going to be healed. And as the song pounds down the dirt road, practically running toward the light, Moulds’s guitar stopped growling and began to sing. It lit the room like a floodlight, him bending back and forth, surrounding it with his body as he cradled it, rocked it, caressed it. The anger and hissing had been tamed and now its noise became a blanket around him instead of veil, covering him from the rest of the world. It still shielded him but with warmth and love instead of mist and darkness. And as he sung, it seemed like I was changing along with him, that I was doing that same stuff along with him.

He’d stood on the edge of the Hoover Dam, stood on the edge of three extremely influential and successful bands, and jumped off or backed off and he’d still survived. He’d been singing about what it’s like to live in a parallel universe, some part that others can see but never touch or step through. And over on his side, it’s a whole different vision, a whole different world. To most people, its noise. To Mould and my father, who showed it to me, it’s a hymn. And I was near tears as I looked over at my Dad singing and smiling along because maybe I thought that the song was him singing to me or me singing to him or just Bob singing to both of us. But as the guitar started to gallop and light started to shoot across the insides of my eyes, as I began to picture faces and places and feelings from long ago, I knew that we were all looking at different places, feeling different things, yet all standing together looking into the light.

“Share the same space for a minute or two:” The Apollonian and Dionysian in David Byrne’s Art (Part 2)

The Apollonian and Dionysian Forces of Music and Tragedy in Byrne’s art

The Dionysian aspects of Byrne’s art eliminates the individual, immersing the listener in a communal experience through rhythm and emotion, while the Apollonian aspects of his art communicate personal, particular perspectives of Dionysian emotions that keep the audience aloof from the intensity of Byrne’s words. While Byrne’s music bridges the gaps between the two drives, his interest in performance as seen in Stop Making Sense and True Stories especially emphasizes the tragic nature of his music. Nietzsche states tragedy fulfills the necessity and equivalent illusion of giving objective and absolute meaning to the difficulty of life, and demonstrates the intertwined nature of the Dionysian and Apollonian in human being. Tragedy imparts the same revelations that are gained by the artistically sensitive man who “pays close attention and derives pleasure from it; for out of these images he interprets life for himself, in these he trains himself for life” (BT 1). Nietzsche claims the Apollonian drive yields the “principium individuationis, through whose gestures and looks all the pleasure and wisdom and beauty of ‘appearance’ speak to us (BT 1). This “principle of individuation” asserts “I exist distinctly from others and I am not dependent on anything for my being.” The Apollonian gives the individual hope that they can remain outside the chaos of life, that they can, like a “sailor sitting in a small boundless raging sea, … trusting to his frail vessel,” “sit calmly in the middle of a world of torment, trusting to the principium individuationis” (BT 1). The Apollonian inspires the individual to think they are safe in their logical boat while the Dionysian chaos rages around (and through) them. However, no matter how watertight Apollonian logic is, they can only hope to temper but not fully control the Dionysian aspects of life just as a well-built boat cannot stop but only weather a storm. Nietzsche claims the Dionysian is necessary in order to force the individual to “produce the redeeming vision and then to sit in calm contemplation of it as his small boat is tossed by the surrounding sea” (BT 4). The Dionysian aspects of life compel and define the Apollonian as a necessary impulse.

Music, or the Dionysian, is thus responsible for the birth of tragedy, or Apollonian visual art. Byrne’s own experimentation with pure emotion in Speaking in Tongues focuses the Dionysian roots of music through absurd Apollonian lyrics to clearly demonstrate that the Apollonian is always, and at best, an illusion of control and meaning over the Dionysian. Byrne commented that “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” was “quite moving without literally meaning anything” and the impact of the song’s nonsense combination of images and phrases of the songs were properly expressed in the music video where “one group of performers” is substituted by another, by a group of imposters” to show “one personality or one image being layered on top of another” (Steenstra 90). Nietzsche’s statement that music’s components of “song and lyrical mood, willing (the personal interest in goals) and the pure contemplation of the available surrounding are blended together in a wonderful mixture: relations between both are sought and imagined; subjective mood, the affection of will communicates its colour to the contemplated surroundings and vice versa in a reflexive movement: the genuine song is the imprint of the mixed and divided emotional state” (BT 5). Simply, the music of Byrne’s nonsense words communicates emotions and meanings that are wholly separate from the literal meaning of the words but the combination of music and lyrics allows the literally nonsense words to be affecting, even moving, and capable of immense subtlety and complexity. While the Dionysian is the foundation of all music, the Apollonian is essential to counter the chaos of raw emotion. Byrne puts it best as he explains his song’s Dionysian foundation, saying, “Talking Heads songs, and even the shows, were still mostly about self-examination, angst, and bafflement at the world we found ourselves in. Psychological stuff” (Byrne 45). He elaborates by saying that he countered the chaotic emotions with “Inward-looking clumps of words combined with my slightly removed ‘anthropologist from Mars view of human relationships” but says “the groove,” the Dionysian rhythm at the core of the band, “was always there, as a kind of physical body-oriented antidote this nervous angsty flailing, but the groove never took over. It served as a sonic and psychological safety net, a link to the body” (Byrne 45). Music links the body to the mind through its fusion of imageless expressions of rhythm to the structured literal meaning of words, yet Byrne has show that music’s Dionysian foundation colors (and can completely change) the Apollonian structure of words. Steenstra claims Byrne’s singing “values distance but combines it with nearness, merging his own personality with the personality of the songs he constructs” (86). In many ways, this is a definition of how music combines the group and the individual, the Dionysian and Apollonian, and how the singer’s representation of emotions must be recreated. The Apollonian defines and represents the song’s theme but the Dionysian particular emotions of the sing imbue the song with emotion, as Byrne says, “like adding water to freeze dried food,” and make the song into a recreation, rather than representation of the particularities that inspired the song (Steenstra 86).

Without the Apollonian, the chaos and absurd causality of the Dionysian would threaten the individual with “tremendous horror which grips man when he suddenly loses his way among the cognitive forms of the phenomenal world, as the principle of reason in any of its forms appears to break down” (BT 1). Without a veil of reason and structure over chaos, the individual would be bogged down by the “lethargic element in which all past personal experience is submerged” (BT 7). Without the Apollonian, the Dionysian knowledge of the world would make one unable to act as, “action can change nothing in the eternal essence of things” (BT 7). If one is ruled by the Dionysian alone, then everything is seen as futile because “true knowledge, insight into the horrific truth, outweighs any motive leading to action” (BT 7). But an individual ruled entirely by the Apollonian is fated to tread “ground elevated high above the real paths trodden by mortals” that is ultimately illusory (BT 7).

The tragic play is a public conflict between the inevitable and unavoidable Dionysian disorder, disintegration, and death and the individual’s Apollonian attempts to avoid, shape, or reject the world around them. The Dionysian and Apollonian forces of Byrne’s art create a tension that is at the heart of Byrne’s music and lyrics.

Identity and the Apollonian and Dionysian

           One of the properties of the Dionysian and Apollonian is to eliminate and reinforce individuation, respectively. Byrne exploits these properties in his work with his focus on mundane, universal subjects that nevertheless contain extreme, particular emotion. Byrne’s characters and situations allow listeners to substitute their particular experience with the perspective of the character. Or, as Byrne wrote, “the text is merely a distraction, a set of brakes, a device to get you to look at the picture for longer than you would ordinarily” (Steenstra 188). Byrne’s work forces the listeners to look closer at their existence, whether it is picking apart the structure of a routine to see the motivations of actions that have become invisible by familiarity or confronting the terrible emotion that lies under the ordinary, unsettlingly relatable thoughts of a psycho killer. Byrne’s Apollonian distance force the listener to be as a spectator to their own life which “draws attention to the theatrical signification by situating the staged reality within the context of a broader ‘reality’ that renders it artificial and constructed rather than natural and immediate” (Morris 53). Through Byrne’s intentional and apparent contrast of the Dionysian and Apollonian, Byrne gives the audience time for reflection, intentionally breaking the illusion of his art, to “briefly give up seeking illusion and acknowledges, even celebrates its own artificiality” (Morris 54).

Byrne claims that his goal during his time in Talking Heads was to “make boring things seem dramatic, instead of dramatic things seem boring. Like scratching your head in front of a few thousand people isn’t the same as scratching it in front of your family…” (Steenstra, pg. 105). Bryne was always concerned with turning even the most prosaic ordered, Apollonian task and expose its Dionysian core. Byrne rooted his music in experience, showing the particularities and uniqueness of even the most overseen habit, such as scratching your head. While the Talking Heads music and lyrics are simple, aggressive, and fast, Byrne uses precise language and context to make the dance-hall patron think about what they were dancing to. Vivien Goldman said, “The Talking Heads… inject[ed] New York’s downtown punk/new wave’s hedonistic scene with some avant-garde heft.” One of his most famous songs with the Talking Heads, “Psycho Killer,” consists of banal and oddly common phrases (“I hate people when they’re not polite,” “Say something once, why say it again”) that were apparently sung from the mind of a “psycho killer.” While the audience danced to the song’s latin-esque groove and frenetic beat, each listener questioned how such boring thoughts could be sung by a character that is defined as sub-human and “outsider” to all human values and society. Byrne confronted the audience with the “problematic relationship between language and self, or language and reality,” or more succinctly, the neat Apollonian structures of language and the unordered, chaotic reality of the Dionysian (Steenstra 41). Byrne’s exploration with language questions the conception that definitions of personality through words and thoughts are valid. His psycho killer may have a voice that is similar to “normal people” but the listener knows that although they may share the same thoughts of the killer, they are not poised to kill if they have one particularly bad day. The boring lyrics of “Psycho Killer” make the listener think about the way that personality is constructed, the underlying tension between actions and the individual’s character, and the expression of those actions or thoughts through words.

Byrne’s art is an interactive dialogue rather than a monologue. Listeners contextualize the universal and abstract nature of music to apply to themselves. Kathleen Higgins claims that Nietzsche understood that “language itself is inherently social” and thus, inherently Apollonian (Higgins 664). She claims that the “individual must subordinate the aspects of his experience that are unique and personal to the generalized, conventional categories that specific words label and connote” (Higgins 664). Byrne, too, understood the Dionysian and Apollonian conflict between tone and literal meaning, as shown by the previous example of his nonsense, yet poignant lyrics in Remain in Light.

Byrne continued to experiment with words, or the Apollonian drive, as a mask of the true nature of the individual and the Dionysian reality of life in his first feature film True Stories. David had also become fascinated by daily ritual, especially as displayed by television’s role as an everyday performance in American lives. Byrne represents television as a physical manifestation of the Apollonian desire for structure, illusion, and predictability in the audience’s life. In the film, the hapless, single Louis attempts to find love as he goes through his daily routine of work, dates Lying Woman and Cute Woman, and participates in the rituals of dinner, nightclubs, and church. Byrne’s concept of language is represented by the character of Lying Woman who appears in various scenes of the movie to tell patently ridiculous personal achievements that could not have possibly happened. Yet, Lying Woman honestly believes her stories and defines herself in the light of her fictional achievements. Steenstra states that “the stories in True Stories do not represent an objective, impersonal reality; they are model scenarios for the ways in which people fashion their identities” (120). Byrne posits that the Apollonian structure of language possess the power to encompass and form the individual through the individual’s belief of their words. Language’s restrictions hide the mind in the constraints of expression, which cuts off the speaker from the Dionysian subtlety and complexity of life.

Byrne’s interest in the influence of ritual and television is incorporated into his concept of the power of language. During the end of the movie, Louis sings “People Like Us” at a televised talent completion and, through the broadcast, Miss Rollings, who never leaves her bed and television, falls in love with him. She is so inundated in Apollonian ritual that she believes that it is Dionysian reality. She is trapped in a the literal “proliferation” of television’s single image, “deluding [herself] that he sees one single image of the world” (BT 21). The television, and thus the Apollonian, “reduces history to bite-size entertaining samples, with its diametrically opposed counterpart: the “larger perspective” in which the majority of human activities appear as vain and idle” (Byrne 118).  Miss Rollings is completely molded by the appearance of the Apollonian and she is unable to think, to feel, to want or even move without the commands of the television. The Apollonian has become so blinding that she is completely isolated from and unable to participate in the Dionysian.  In “People Like Us” Louis explains that he is a representation of common man and women who are “waitin’ on love” and because television is able to broadcast his story to Miss Rollings she is able to fall in love with him. Steenstra explains that, because Louis expressed himself using an Apollonian medium, his truth “is accepted by [Miss Rollings] as a personal reality, and in consequence is made true by his [Apollonian] behavior” (120). Because Louis expresses his Dionysian feelings in an Apollonian way, he is finally able to become who he wanted to be: a man who is in love. Louis becomes who he wants to be through the Apollonian mediums of language and performance and Byrne clearly shows that language is more than a mask for the self but is also “used for self-definition and to shape intimate relationships” and is an “important ritual aspect of everyday life” (Steenstra 120).  True Stories clarifies Byrne and Nietzsche’s definition of masking and simultaneous defining nature of the Apollonian over the Dionysian.

Byrne’s work as a sculptor, ballet composer, and solo artist continued to “emphasize language and ideas as the true essence of art and that all visual experience and sensual joy were secondary and inessential to art” even as he worked in mediums that he infused with sensual and emotional elements that remained from his time as a rock star (Steenstra 4). Byrne’s theme of language’s self-defining and paradoxically concealing quality had manifested into a conception of routine ritual. Every routine of Apollonian order, such as driving, brushing teeth, conversation at the water cooler, has an influence on the individuals that perform the rituals. Their routine blinds them to Byrne’s thesis to put ordinary things in extraordinary circumstances carried over to his work as the composer of the ballet The Catherine Wheel when “A Big Blue Plymouth” forces the main character to twitch, convulse, and shake like a mystic or at other times appear to take on the composed frenzy of an evangelist or even perform the erratic spasm of a mental patient as they sit behind an automotive symbol of America. The Big Blue Plymouth, the ultimate symbol of the sterile force of the visual Apollonian form, inspires a Dionysian fervor and clearly represents the risk of following the Apollonian to believe exclusively in the “external symbol of all the different aspects of the inner [Dionysian] emotions” (Kurth 11).  The Apollonian has the potential to completely subsume and reduce the Dionysian. As Byrne sings advertising phrases next to spiritual slogans, Byrne’s concept of the most prevalent ritual and performance, the presence of television, is seen to be “a kind of demigod, influencing the lives of mere mortals beyond their understanding, always ready to transport consciousness to distant scenes and places” (Steenstra 113). The never-ending Apollonian performances of television allow each viewer to switch between channels and effectively choose which stories or language that they want to believe in.

Television’s daily ritual and Byrne’s themes of performance and language overlap in his notion of the power of television. During Byrne’s time in the Talking Heads, language was at odds with the personality communicating the language and effectively functioned as a mask for the true identity of the mind. In his film work, Byrne defined language as a tool to form the individual’s identity as much as language disguised true identity. Byrne began to incorporate language as a critical part of performance and ritual, which he posited as the most influential factor of definition of the individual. Finally, in his later artistic endeavors, Byrne chose to represent television as the ultimate ritual and thus, the most significant influence in the formation of each individual. Byrne wrote that the obvious artificiality of music is because “in its own self-defined universe it is eminently listenable and beautiful. This beauty is the seductress that draws one in to this joyous mechanical universe, makes the introductions and invites one to linger” and the same seductive artificiality can be applied to the appeal of television (Byrne, “I Have Seen The Future…” 10). Television interprets the world for us, it bursts in on our lives through the living room, and each person is responsible for what channel and language that they want to shape their lives. Byrne inventively uses language, sound, and storytelling to expose the building blocks of daily performance in different forms that shape and influence each member of his audience’s personality and perspective of reality.

The Dionysian and Apollonian at Play

Byrne plays with the interplay between audience and artist with self-aware lyrics and music in order to exploit the transformative personal power of music to engage in an Apollonian discussion. Byrne writes in such a unique style so that his audience will think about his lyrics and as they think about his lyrics, he wants them to think about him thinking about them so that the audience is at once engaged with the song and artist simultaneously. In this way, Byrne’s audience understands the Dionysian roots of the song’s subject, the Apollonian structure of the song, and the Dionysian emotion of Byrne, the Apollonian composer, all refracted simultaneously.

Byrne’s radical emotional and philosophical core of his lyrics shifts the listener’s personal experience and transforms them as they experience the universal sentiments of the lyrics and simultaneously connect to a particular context that is alien to their own.The Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of Byrne’s music work allow the listener to experience their lives in a different context by forcing them to substitute and shift their experience upon encountering the experiences communicated in Byrne’s work. Byrne alienates the listener from their body with his Apollonian lyrics while simultaneously drawing them closer to their body with his Dionysian compositions. Byrne is an anti-Wagner because Byrne “understands how anyone can fail to experience what he experiences” and does not “criticize the public for their failure” but rather “questions himself” (Morris 48). Byrne’s intentional ambiguity “prompts the observer to enter into reflection on the nature of his own existence” but the reflection provides “no real answer, so that the observer feels ‘alienated from his own being’” (Morris 49). Byrne’s music celebrates the “intellectual,” or Apollonian, and “emotional,” or Dionysian, aspects of his subjects to give “content and meaning to his musical experience for one seeks in vain to correlate in the aesthetic object itself” (Love 191). The Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of his work allow people to recontextualize their own lives through experiencing the lives and experiences of Byrne and his characters.

Byrne’s embrace of Apollonian individuality through abstract lyricism and Dionysian particularity through rhythm, intense emotion, and community is an exact expression of Nietzsche’s definition of how “music expresses the universality of pure form” (BT 16). Byrne’s music makes clear “the world of individual things, supplies the visible, the particular and individual, the individual case, both to the universality of concepts and to the universality of melodies, these two universalities being united but also in a certain respect opposed” (BT 16). Byrne reveals the heart of music, that “ecstatic sound of the Dionysian celebration [ringing] in an ever more seductive and spellbinding way through the artificially damned-up world build on appearance and moderation,” (BT 4)  is embodied in his unique combination of language and “musical mood” (BT 4).  Byrne’s intentional exposure of the differentiation of the Apollonian and Dionysian elements of music enhances the tension between the two forces. As Byrne says in “This Must Be The Place,” music is the bridge that allows an individual to lose himself or herself in the fecundity of life and simultaneously express their individuation. Music is the method for losing the self in the commonality of life and defining one’s perspective. Music provides the revelation that we all are “just animals looking for a home” and music, briefly, allows others to see their lives with a fresh perspective and maybe even “share the same space for a minute or two.


Byrne, David. “Machine of Joy: I Have Seen the Future and It Is Squiggly” Leonardo Music Journal. Vol. 12, Pleasure (2002), pp. 7-10. Boston: MIT Press. Web.    10 October 2013.

Byrne, David. How Music Works. San Francisco: McSweeny’s, 2012. Print.

Sytze, Streenstra. Song and Circumstance: The Work of David Byrne. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010. Print.

Higgins, Kathleen. “Nietzsche on Music.” Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 47, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1986): 663 – 672. Boston: MIT Press. Web. 10 November, 2013.

Gambino, Giacomo. “Nietzsche and the Greeks: Identity, Politics, and Tragedy.” Polity, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer, 1996), pp. 415-444 New York: Palgrave Macmillan Journals. Web. November 21, 2013.

Kurth, Richard. “Music and Poetry, a Wilderness of Doubles: Heine–Nietzsche–Schubert—Derrida.” 19th-Century Music , Vol. 21, No. 1 (Summer, 1997), pp. 3-37. Los Angeles: University of California Press. Web. November 10, 2013.

Morris, Christopher. ‘Alienated from His Own Being’: Nietzsche, Bayreuth and the Problem of Identity.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association , Vol. 127, No. 1 (2002), pp. 44-71. London: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Royal     Musical Association. Web. November 10, 2013.

Nietzsche, Fredrich. Ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large. The Nietzsche Reader. “Birth of Tragedy.” Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Print.

True Stories. Dir. David Byrne. 1986. Warner Brothers. Film.

“Share the same space for a minute or two:” The Apollonian and Dionysian in David Byrne’s Art (Part 1)

David Byrne’s work in his seminal band, Talking Heads, and his solo work as a musician explore the tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian introduced by Nietzsche in “The Birth of Tragedy.” Byrne portrays the extreme situations and emotions of the Dionysian with the detached perspective of the Apollonian. For example, the musical dimensions of Byrne’s song about a “Psycho Killer” are calm and pleasant, communicating the surprisingly mundane thoughts of the titular character, but nonetheless we recognize that we are hearing the inner dialogue of a sociopath. Byrne thus takes Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian perspectives and displays them in a forceful fashion; the Dionysian physicality of the music is compelling to such an extreme that it is nearly impossible for a listener not to move their body while listening, but Byrne’s lyrics are so intellectual and detached from the body that they mask the rawness of their subjects. Initially, listeners may find themselves unthinkingly dancing and singing along to Byrne’s narrative of an extreme Dionysian emotional response, whether it is the thoughts of a homicidal maniac. Another example of Byrne’s use of the Apollonian and the Dionysian in “Once in A Lifetime’s” account of a crippling emotional and spiritual crisis. This is accomplished without the musical elements full realization of what will be found in the words’ emotional volatility. Yet, once a listener concentrates on the Dionysian core of Byrne’s words, the clear musical and lyrical tension in the Talking Heads is given context by Byrne’s presentation of the conflict between the Apollonian performances of Dionysian topics. My term paper will use Nietzsche’s concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian forces as he describes them in their birth from the spirit of music to analyze the musical and visual art of David Byrne. I will reveal how Byrne exploits the gap between the Apollonian and the Dionysian to create a brilliant and creative tension in the heart of his work, a tension that is responsible for the enormous aesthetic success of that seminal work.

The Dionysian qualities of Byrne’s music underscore and blend the Apollonian aspects of his lyrics, acting in synchronization to introduce unique elements to the work as a whole and to the individual forces. Byrne’s distinctive approach to lyricism and music melds physical and immensely sensuous instrumentation with detached lyrics that are nevertheless concerned with very intense emotion. Thus, David Byrne’s art is, as Nietzsche described Euripedean drama in Birth of Tragedy, “a thing at once cool and on fire; as likely to freeze as it is to burn” (BT, 12). It consists of the dual forces of “Apollonian visions and Dionysian raptures” that constantly shift in dominance that add to the elements of the inferior force, until the other force has become dominant (BT, 12). Accordingly, Byrne’s “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)” can appear simultaneously nervy, mawkish, paranoid, and tender, which seem to be opposing emotions, without becoming so discordant to drown out the song’s core expression of love. Byrne’s music represents the “intimate relationship between music and the true essence of things” that, despite apparent contradictions inherent in Byrne’s art, “reveals to [the listener] its most secret meaning and emerges as the most accurate and clearest commentary upon it… as if he is watching within himself all the possible events of life and the world move past in procession” (BT, 16).

Nietzsche’s description of music as an “abstractum of reality,” which he defines with “supplies the visible, the particular and individual, the individual case, both to the universality of concepts and to the universality of melodies, these two universalities being united but also in a certain respect opposed,” is the foundation of the character of David Byrne’s music (BT, 16). Byrne expresses universal, raw emotional Dionysian subjects with an impassive, highly intellectual Apollonian presentation to create a tension that exploits the tension between the two conflicting yet complementary forces of his art and music, allowing us to enter forbidden worlds of human experience, worlds which we are able to enter only through the genius of Byrne’s work.

Nietzsche’s Definition of the Apollonian and the Dionysian

Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy explains the significance of the rise of the dramatic form of tragedy in order to illuminate the myth of individuation. Nietzsche argues that the will acts through the twin drives of the Apollonian, “the art of the Sculptor” or “dream,” and the Dionysian, “the imageless… art of music ” or “intoxication,” and that life must be balanced by the two impulses (BT 1). Tragedy represents the Greek’s insight into the difference between the Apollonian and Dionysian elements of the psyche. Tragedy is an exercise in exposing the possibilities for spontaneity within the tumultuous occurrences of life that transcend the day-to-day world.  Elements of tragedy are found in Byrne’s performances and lyrics, which transfer music to a theatrical context. The concert film Stop Making Sense is a prime example of Byrne’s fusion of the Apollonian and Dionysian artistic forms of tragedy and music as the film’s live performance of Byrne’s solo songs and Talking Heads compositions is constructed to form a loose narrative that follows the emotionally turbulent journey of one man’s quest for self-identity. The added physical context of the imageless songs recontextualizes even Byrne’s well-known songs, transforming the poppy “Once in A Lifetime” into a poignant monologue and his bittersweet “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)” into a symbol of the transcendent, tender, and transformative power of love. I will focus on the two key songs of the film’s narrative as examples of Byrne’s effective use of tragedy and music to create a tension that surprises the audience by submerging “all past personal experience” in the Dionysian rhythm and emotions of the music while communicating that experience in such a way that elicits the audience to engage the work with “wide-eyed contemplation” and be spurred to action (BY 12).

The Apollonian drive is characterized by order, pre-meditated thought, and hope. Apollo, the Greek god of light, poetry, and medicine, is the representation of the desire to control and define the world, to group life into logical and discursive forms of thought, and to do so by dealing in abstract and theoretical rules. The Apollonian artist desires to control his surroundings, to tame the chaos of Nature with a work of the “plastic arts” (BT 1). The Apollonian drive is represented in Byrne’s intellectual approach to his subjects regardless of their emotional content. While “Once In A Lifetime” tackles the serious questions of self-identity (“You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?”) and self-purpose (“You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”) with a gospel, upbeat style that smashes the personal, emotional roots of his lyrics with repetitive, obtuse sloganeering. Byrne presents his characters as “isolated voices embedded in rhythm,” Apollonian contemplations entrenched in a Dionysian spirit of community (Steenstra 61). Despite the insular and personal sentiments of the song, Byrne has crafted the emotions into something that is meant to be sung by a chorus. He broadcasts the mental collapse of one individual through the soaring voices of dozens and effectively negates and reinforces the individual. The Dionysian emotions of the song are forced onto others to sing what should be private, which negates the individuals by replacing their thoughts with another, but simultaneously reinforces the importance of the emotions of the singers to contextualize the foreign emotions. Steenstra explains that Byrne “offers a rhythmic invitation to such hot, uncomfortable, pretentious voices in the media landscape to be cooled in a communal and musical celebration” (62).  Nietzsche states an Apollonian or “plastic” work of art is a representation instead of a presentation of life, just as those who join in singing “Once In A Lifetime” largely ignore the turmoil under the song to just enjoy its superficially joyful presentation (BT 1). Those who join in singing do not experience the emotions of the words they sing, rather they ignore or are set at a distance from the song. When an artist creates a plastic or visual work of art they “shape” reality to their whim, smoothing out their rough emotions and experiences, omitting anything that would detract from their expression, and adding to the imperfections of nature. The Apollonian anticipates order, integration, and endless life, casting an illusion, or “appearance” over the “empirical reality” and mechanizations of life for the purpose of “continuous redemption” of the individual (BT 4). Byrne’s Apollonian chorus structure assumes that a dozen unique individuals can correctly express the emotions of one individual and that the emotions of one, if expressed in a certain way, are universally significant. Obviously, as it is apparent from the immense popularity of the song, the Apollonian character of Byrne’s presentation of the song strikes at a common theme but since the song is often used as a stylistically “happy” song in movie trailers, the Dionysian foundation of the song is not commonly communicated. Nietzsche states all characteristics of the Apollonian, stability, structure, and order, are all illusions overlaid on the passion, fecundity, and desire of Dionysus (BT 4).

The Dionysian drive is characterized by spontaneity, dynamism, and pessimism. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, ecstasy, and passion, is a representation of the human desire for excess, unfettered creativity, and transcendence. The Dionysian work of art is wholly submerged in the subjective and the emotive, unified in the undifferentiated flow of life, and revels in the horrors, passion, and absurd aspects of life. The Dionysian is represented in Byrne’s compositions’ physicality. Byrne heavily relies on polyrhythm and raw emotions that underlie his nervy, detached lyrics. His music is Dionysian, both for the carnal stimulus to move to the grooves of the band and for the extreme emotions at work in his lyrics.  Dionysian desires oppose form and structure, “cause the subjective to dwindle to complete self-oblivion,” and “reunified, reconciled, reincorporated, and merged with neighbor” and nature (BT 1). The highest form of Dionysian work, which is defined as music by Nietzsche (BT 1), is a presentation of life without metaphor or symbol and comes directly from the raw situations of the individual’s life. Steenstra explains that Byrne’s best songs are “designed to a range of archetypal emotions” with “loose metaphorical phrases and slogans” (89) to allow the song to slip from “one half-ecstatic mood into another, from one archetypal (and thus quite common) worldview into the next” (90). Steenstra claims that this “suggests an everyday universe of commonplace myths, subjective states that are most of the time not registered consciously” (90). These collective yet subjective states are “beyond literal expression,” yet can be clearly communicated (Steenstra 87). Nietzsche defines this as the Dionysian and explains that “music allows every picture, indeed every scene of real life and the world to stand out with greater meaning” because music “expresses [the certainty of reality] in a universality of pure form” (BT 16).  While the Dionysian and Apollonian oppose and contradict each other, they are essential and intertwined in any full life; the Dionysian acting as a “foundation of all existence” (BT 7) that inspires creativity is given structure, and thus meaning, by the Apollonian drive. Tragedy is thus bred in the creative conflict between the Dionysian reality and the human need to build a justification for life immersed in the unstructured, objectively unjustifiable, and ambiguous individual reality.

Sigur Ros – Stage AE – September 19

Sigur Ros 

You may not have heard of Sigur Rós but youve almost certainly heard Sigur Rós. Their Festival is the musical exemplification of newfound life, redemption, and joy that plays in the stunning dialogue-free climax of 127 Hours, their music scores T.V. shows as diverse as Being Human, The Simpsons, and V, and they are the soundtrack to your life (even if you dont know it yet). Sigur Rós are an Icelandic post-rock band, which means theyre a rock band that has fused the musical traditions of classical music, such as an emphasis on timbre, texture, and classical instruments, with the informality, passion, and spectacle of rock. Theyre classical composers who wear converses instead of tuxes.

    While my selling point of  classical music, but theyre totally rad and hip with all the youngsters, yo doesnt appear initially appealing, classical music hasnt always had the reputation of stodginess. In fact, the first time Stravinsky played Rite of Spring, the pure emotion, avant-garde orchestration, and daringness of the music and ballet caused the audience of Parisian aristocrats to riot, throwing objects and attacking each other and the members of the orchestra because of their heightened emotion. At one point, classical music excited people, rich, cultured people, to violence, transcended culture and civilization with raw emotion, cut so deep to the heart of human emotion that it made people forget where and who they were and remember what they were. Stravinskys music made people remember they are human; it made people see and hear beauty and horror, passion and fearlessness, the raw, bracing and real truth of life. Sigur Rós proves that classical music, even classical music in a new guise, hasnt lost its edge.

    Sigur Rós plays music that, somehow, you already know. Even though theyre singing in a mix of Icelandic and made-up language called Hopelandic, their music communicates truths that stretch beyond language. Their music is more representative of concepts than particulars: when they play a love song, it is a song about Love, about the pain and glory and ecstasy of Love all at once, more than it is about a particular love. Their music is the cloth that other bands songs are cut from, music that is so big and emotional and inexpressible that it defies you to define it. They play the music of your life, the sound of the feeling you got when you were sitting on the back bumper of your car that one summer or the sensation of watching a sunrise arm in arm with a loved one or the unspeakable stir of midnights hushed rustle. Its music of hope, sadness, and joy, life sung in a nonsense language that expresses emotions and ideas so intrinsic to what makes us human that theres no need for translation.Sigur Ros

    Sigur Rós concert on September 19 at Stage AE in Pittsburgh was even more emotionally intense and cathartic as their albums. The band rolled through new and old favorites throughout the set like the whole show was a single movement. The band stomped through the scorched-earth aggression of Brennisteinn and drifted into the gossamer Vaka before I even realized that the song had changed. Images of nuclear bombs and idyllic countryside coexisted side by side, as the band slipped from song to song, mood-to-mood, without hesitation or effort. Songs that felt like loneliness segued into redemptive pieces that had the whole audience jumping or simply throwing their hands up in inexpressible joy. Songs that skulked through the stages fog with fangs of staccato violin and chanted threats were thrust into the light minutes later, transforming into hymns whose softly plucked strings and hushed voices wouldnt feel out of place in a cathedral. Everything felt connected.

     But what was there to connect to? There werent lyrics to relate to, no narrative that could be identified, and little more to look at than video screens displaying arty clips of masked men, bodies drifting in water, and either brooding or calming images of nature that were hesitantly connected to the music. Yet every note felt like they were putting hands in me and pulling pieces out, pulling and pushing my insides around while I was still awake. Since the band didnt provide anything to latch onto, nothing more than their minimalistic music, the audience filled in the gaps.  Every swooping string and rumbling bass painted a story in grand, breathtaking cinematic scope, taking me from images of my life to barren wastelands to church cathedrals sometimes all in the same song. It felt like the entire audience was watching the same movie but one that was constructed of characters, scenes, and feelings that were all their own.

     Sigur Rós show celebrated everything about life with wordless awe and breathtaking spectacle.

Sigur Ros Red

Arcade Fire – Reflektor Tour Review


  After seeing Arcade Fire on their “Reflektor” tour at CONSOL Energy Center on March 12, everything about their rapid rise as critical and popular indie darlings is making sense. Old stories of their shows starting with a crowd-wide dance circle and sing-along through the crowd shows that they’ve always had a appreciation for the spectacular but this tour made it clear that Arcade Fire is embracing the notion that the world’s biggest indie band is not an oxymoron.

Throwing a concert at arenas like CONSOL is a completely different monster than playing the Rex Theater, the site of Arcade Fire’s last concert in Pittsburgh more than ten years ago. While word of mouth, a critical buzz, and a thrilling live show is more than enough to fill a small theater, Arcade Fire knew that arena shows are competing with giant musical acts, sports events, and everything else CONSOL has hosted.

To succeed at CONSOL, Arcade Fire had to be at the top of their game, matching the giddy tautness of the last seconds of a power play and the grand spectacle of Gaga, Springsteen, and all the other acts that have played there all while filling the massive stadium with enough noise and energy to attract the eyes and move the bodies of thousands of fans.


     It’s apparent that Arcade Fire is not only conscious of the heightened expectations of their newfound success but is up for the challenge. The certainly have the vision and energy, molding the CONSOL into an elaborate dance party complete with top-notch DJ’s Kid Koala and Dan Deacon, lightshow, and nonstop dancing. And they definitely have the ability. The band handled every song across multiple music styles with tight precision, sprawling out on the lush, orchestral “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” pounding out a punky livewire bassline on “Ready to Start,” and soaring over intermeshing synth lines on “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” Underneath the seductive “Billie Jean” bassline for “We Exist” Win Butler sung lyrics musing on social issues or espousing equality, underscoring the depth and ambition of their music. Arcade Fire was electrifying, equally parts brainy and emotive.

As the show closed down to the sound of thousands of voices singing along to “Wake Up” under the a still-falling hurricane of confetti, Arcade Fire and the audience became one voice, one performance, and there was no difference between the bouncing audience and the jumping band members. Even though Arcade Fire is much bigger than it was ten years ago, there didn’t seem to be a distance from those days sweating in clubs, feet away from the audience. Underneath the lights, suits and costumes, and massive monitors, we were all just happy to sing along and dance in the biggest house party ever thrown in Pittsburgh.


Diane Coffee – Smiling Moose – January 17

Diane Coffee shares more with David Lynch than just a sly Twin Peaks reference for a name. They’ve got the Lynch weirdness down, that precarious balance between the ordinary, comforting feeling of rock and roll past achievements and darkness. It’s retro-pop but it’s so much more than that. It’s weird, shocking, and even funnily disturbing. Hearing Shaun assault and bend the sounds of bygone car rides with Grandparents is like watching Mr. Blonde carve up that cop to “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs; It’s a gleeful destruction of a time that most listeners (including me) thought toothless and soft. But it’s more than destruction, too. Diane Coffee force the listener to look at what they thought was comfortable, defined, and see the urgency, darkness, and thrill that has been overlooked by time or laziness on the part of the listener.

In the beginning of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera follows people living out the Norman Rockwell version of America – schoolchildren crossing the street, a shiny red fire truck idly gliding down suburban streets, and a kindly older man smiling as he waters his Crayola-green grass—just before the whole thing suddenly takes a tragic turn and the camera sinks below the beautiful lush lawn until the beetles scrabbling and chittering over the rot and death that rests under the perfect town overwhelms the screen and audio. Diane Coffee’s style lures the listener into getting similarly comfortable before ambushing them with an out-of-place solo, a sudden scream, or a tight squeeze of noise. Before they know it, a song that sounded old and harmless shed the “Super Sounds of the 70’s” sound to become a raging monster, smashing the treasured, echo-y halls of classic rock with modern fury. But then, the fury really isn’t “modern” and the sexual frustration and rage in Fleming’s clenched fist and cracking voice was always there. It was just buried under time and a reluctance to make a fuss. Thankfully, Diane Coffee weren’t shy in the least bit to get down and dirty as they dug up rock’s past.

Diane Coffee

Fleming, dressed like a cross between Comes Alive-era Frampton and Steve Nicks, pushed his band through a blazing set as his voice roared, cracked, and shook over the sound of the band’s warped vision of psychedelia, folk, and classic rock. “Hymn’s” church organ and sashaying bass sounded like Father, Son, Holy Ghost-era Girls (may they rest in peace) and then careened into a punk charge before melting into dissonance.  The swaggering blues of “Never Lonely” was frequently interrupted by gales of noise and screaming in between the bouncy chorus where Fleming deadpanned “Man, you really bum me out.” It was all misplaced aggression and sexual frustration and I couldn’t get enough of it. The brooding, lewd “WWWoman” had Fleming crooning, laughing, and twisting around his microphone stand as the band slinked behind him. While the band teased Fleming about losing his voice, I can’t imagine how he’d sound fully recovered. The man’s voice and persona straddled nearly every genre with ease. He flung himself across the stage with maniacal punk barking and energy to the Costello-inspired “New Year’s,” leered at the audience as his guitar coiled around the band’s lewd R&B “Eat Your Love,” and jumped and yelped to the flawless pop melody of “Gov. T.”

Diane Coffee is more than just the latest band cashing in on the soothing sounds of reborn rock nostalgia and they’re definitely more than just a sideband of Foxygen. They’re confident, fun, and stand wholly on their own outside the buzz surrounding Fleming’s other gig. Their show was a blast and made it very clear that they’re “DAMN good coffee, and HOT!”

Anello – Smiling Moose – January 17

I didn’t know that there were two openers and so I thought Anello was the headliner for over three songs. Other than showing off my ignorance, my mistake shows just how accomplished Anello’s blues and indie pop mix sounds. The spooky, creaky blues of “The Wall” and their pristine harmonizing on “Only Star” revealed a band that was comfortable and natural in many genres despite their stylistic differences. They were a great surprise, in more than one way, when I was expecting a much bigger and better-known band.

Anello knew exactly how to strike a balance between ambition and crowd-pleasing hooks. I was especially impressed by Vincent Poprocky’s guitar playing as he subtly switched from filling in with textured chords to understated but stylish soloing that complimented Dan Styslinger’s piano. “The Wall’s” gothic stomp had me picturing foggy, marshy plantations as it slithered around Dan Stylsinger’s jaunty piano while the power pop of “Only Star” paired Kyla Sauber and Vin Nania to great effect as their voices blended in a clear, clean harmony. Anello was best when they were carving out their own niche of indie pop, whether that was just mining the Big Star power pop or a nice tread in the land Delta Blues, but some of their set started to sound like simple simulations of other bands, instead of new takes on familiar formulas. Then, near the end of the set, almost to underscore their evident influences, the band took a synth warm-up that sounded suspiciously like “My Girls” by Animal Collective and ran with it. Suddenly, the band dove headfirst into an unplanned (?) cover of “My Girls” with Nania tweaking synths, Styslinger leaping into the air between drum hits, and Sauber swaying to the raucous noise going on all around her. I’d never believe that any band could ever cover the ADHD pop of Animal Collective but I had been wrong about Anello before. They blew the cover away. It wasn’t as complex as AnCo but I didn’t care. I was having way too much fun singing and shaking my head in disbelief that a band would actually try, much less get away with, covering “My Girls.” It was by far the best moment of the night.

Anello is an odd band that excels when vamping established genres and styles but suffers when their skillful imitation crosses the line between nodding towards their influences and full-out showing where their sound came from. However, nearly all the originals were excellent and threw in surprising twists while their covers were actually better than any song that night. It’s a crime that there are only three songs (and one of them is a similarly excellent cover of another beloved song, “Lost” by Frank Ocean) by Anello available on the web. I’m hoping that such a big show and positive response inspire some fresh releases.  They’ve got promise – the fact that I’m still singing the melody of an unnamed song by them a week later shows their talent – and, honestly, I really want a taste of their magnificent “My Girls” cover again. And a few new originals would be nice, too! Anello have an obvious mastery over their inspirations and it’s apparent that it’s only a matter of time before they can bring that skill to original compositions.

The Fledgelings – Smiling Moose – January 17

Even Special Agent Dale Cooper would have thought Diane Coffee’s set at The Smiling Moose in Pittsburgh was damn good. Shaun Fleming’s solo project away from his time as the drummer of Foxygen lived up to their Lynchian namesake with rickety retro-rock that constantly veered off their familiar Crosby, Stills, and Nash and Kinks-influenced roots into something much weirder.  But first, openers The Fledglings and Anello primed the audience with guitar-heavy indie rock and blues as they warded off questions about if they’ve “talked to the dude from Foxygen.”

The Fledgelings already got a glowing review from me about their first single, “Strange and Cold,” from their upcoming EP No Ghosts but I was excited to see how the band performed live. They’ve always been much stronger in person than any of their recordings have disclosed and I couldn’t wait to hear them stretch out and flex their muscles with a full band. And, man, what a band. Jeremy Flynn’s vocals curled around his guitar thrashes, bleeding into the mess that surrounds him. Flynn’s a top-notch lyricist and while the clean, straight lines of his images get a bit muddled in the noise of a concert, his loose, emotional singing more than filled in the blanks of misheard or buried lyrics.  As Marcus Morales’ soloing and Calvin Yoder’s springy bass work sparred around the edges Zach Ray’s drumming on “Birthday Song” from the first EP, I finally felt the person behind the songs. Live, with feedback and a crappy PA system, the song was more than just an intellectual appreciation of images. I could move to it. I could actually dance. And, most importantly, it sounded like it meant something immediate to the band. Flynn’s panic became more than words as Morales wrung screams and yelps from his guitar that pierced the swelling, indiscriminate clamor swallowing Flynn’s pleas. I’d be hard pressed to point to any lyrically AND musically rich moment anywhere on the Fledgelings recordings, yet their live show was near to bursting with them.


Maybe it was the noise or the giddy energy from the band but nearly every “old” song in the hands of the new Fledgelings line-up felt new. We were seeing more than a new line-up; we were seeing the living, breathing songs that the records had stripped down to sterilized skeletons. The slow walk of “Phantom Limb” felt heavier and more ominous and new songs “Sidewalks” and “10,000 Books” finally put some punk teeth to the bite of Flynn’s lyrics. In fact, the only song that didn’t sound “right” was “Manila Envelope,” which felt just polished, instead of completely reconstructed, to suit the new line-up, as if it was just a cover. The Fledgelings sound like a completely new band compared to their last album and this band kicks the old Fledgelings’ ass so hard it is difficult to see why anyone would listen to the old recordings at all, much less cover them. It’s no surprise that the best song they played (and maybe the best song they’ve written) was the punk-y, loose “Sidewalks” which has a sprawling, jammy outro that took delight in getting loud and messy while highlighting the skills of each one of the musicians over Zach Ray’s precise drum rolls. It’s odd to think that a band should cut their losses and just restart but, geez, the joy and energy and life coming from everything the Fledgelings did makes me think that they aren’t really losing anything. This is the band they should have been all along.

The Fledgelings – Strange and Cold

Strange and Cold

The Fledgelings single, “Strange and Cold,” from their upcoming second EP contains everything I loved about their debut EP and has none of that work’s stumbling blocks. Jeremy Flynn’s lyrics are similarly fantastic, equal parts evocative and straightforward, but a burly rhythm section has countered the melancholy that oftentimes dragged The Fledgeling EP down. His voice still has that contemplative and yearning edge that hit so hard when his guitar skittered over lines like “you know it’s gonna end soon / some kind of ascension / and you won’t feel safe / and you won’t feel right” but the newly prominent bass and bright guitar take a bit of the musical edge away from the dreariness of the subject that sometimes infected the songs on the debut. The new emphasis on the rhythm section and an increased attention to the band’s full sound guarantees that the music is no longer suffering through the same emotions as Flynn’s words and that’s a very good thing.  While “Strange and Cold” finds Flynn still dealing with the same issues of alienation, self-doubt, and anxiety that ran throughout the debut EP, the music is welcoming, pleasant, and catchy, even if it is downbeat.

The Fledgelings’ rhythm section is the first thing any listener will notice and rightly so. The warm and gooey bass line that swells through the quick trails of clean, bright guitar undercuts Flynn’s twilight reflections. Josh Flynn’s bass’ low warm rumble colors Marcus Morales’ flickering guitar solos like a particularly fine sunset fading into a glittering night. The two compliment each other completely in the way that the colors of a sunset seem to bleed into the stars and night long after the sun has sunken down. Despite Flynn’s distinctly collegiate images of “walking down campus streets” and watching “kids getting sick from what they drank and what they learned,” the music’s all-embracing calm and friendliness feels like he could be talking about twilight in Hometown USA or somewhere else. It’s the feeling of watching a sunset and thinking that something else is setting along with it.

Flynn’s desperate hope that maybe someday “every sun could be a sun,” that every day will be bright and flawless, is striking in its sincerity. There’s a certain charisma to Flynn’s voice with the music backing it, an honesty and clear-sightedness to his flaws that inspires empathy and trust even when he’s bluntly singing, “I was never true to you / even when I told the truth/ And I cashed all my checks and I stole from you.” Flynn’s lyricism skirts the line between personal confession and emotive abstractness, giving us hints of what inspired the lines while remaining being broad and colorful enough to spin into the listener’s own life. Flynn still hasn’t figured it all out but, just like The Fledgeling EP, he’s still giving it his best. And when the music is this catchy and inviting, I know I’ll happily be along for the ride.

Flynn’s singing and his band’s contributions have finally caught up to the thrill, subtlety, and power of prying into the rich images of his lyrics. Every listen dug up something new musically and lyrically to pay attention to, whether it was the understated but effectiveness of Morales’ backup singing, the rich harmony between Josh Flynn and Morales during the solos, or the shifting shades of meaning from alienation to guilt to hope with every repetition of the chorus. Every listen uncovers a new jewel. The Fledgelings have always been one of the most interesting indie bands of the Pittsburgh music scene and I can safely say that with “Strange and Cold” and the upcoming EP, they’re poised to be one of the most satisfying indie presences on the scene as well.

Soundcloud link:

Bob Dylan and His Band – Merriweather Post Pavilion – July 23, 2013


If you’re off to see Bob Dylan in concert these days, you’re most likely there just to see the man in person: an item to cross off of your amazing-people-to-see-before-you/they-die list. I managed to catch him in Johnstown, PA last year for the first time. As probably my favorite singer-songwriter, I wrote his name in large bold letters at the top of my itinerary. His band was in full form, reminiscent of Dylan’s Hawks (a.k.a. The Band) circa 1966 in their (in)famous Royal Albert Hall performance—and rightly so. In the past 15 years, Dylan’s voice has become exponentially deeper and more ragged. He can sing even more poorly now than he did 40 years ago. But Dylan has always had a well-known affection for early American blues music, a style whose locomotion has always been fuelled by gravelly timbres and attenuated musical imperfection. I imagine Bob must be relatively happy with how he’s aged. He was frequently called “ahead of his time” during his emergence in the early 1960s; now that he’s well past retirement, Dylan has become physically what his musical persona (and influences) has always invoked: an angry, bitter, world-weary old man. Aging appropriately into his inspirations, his new leathery, sandpaper-like voice matches perfectly the electric rock and roll music that he has been harnessing since the release of 1997’s excellent Time Out of Mind. Hearing a younger Dylan playing over music as heavy and aggressive as the stuff on Tempest and Modern Times might give some credence to the foolish folkie who called him Judas 47 years ago, but that heckle would sound just as silly today as it did back then. Rock and blues music shouldn’t be about the means by which an artist carries their baggage with them, it’s what’s inside that really matters. Lately Dylan has stripped away the confessional narrative of his early-to-mid-period songs, instead channeling his pathos into a hefty set of ditties consisting of self-contained but brilliant-on-their-own stanzas over loud, blues-ridden rock music. The man has morphed into soothsaying scribe, amassing a great deal of ever-so-quotable quatrains, every one of them like holes in a coarse cheese grater as he growls and croons the kitchen utensil in jagged rhythms over our collective souls. Dylan has thrown his baggage down the express lane packed with only the finest soot-covered linens.

robert allen zimmerman

“Well, my back’s been to the wall so long it seems like it’s stuck
Why don’t you break my heart one more time, just for good luck?”

So the last decade and a half has seen a renaissance for Dylan as a recording artist. But I am here for a concert review, and so must ask: have his live performances done his albums justice, and how was his performance at Merriweather Post Pavilion? I am disappointed to say that the rumors are unfortunately founded in truth. Don’t expect a Dylan show to be extraordinary, because it won’t be. Dylan’s concerts have two primary attractions: his band, a primo musical force that will get your feet thumping. The other is that you get to say that you were within viewing distance of Bob Dylan. The man’s actual performances can be—and usually are—spotty. In the flesh his voice is even harsher, but that ain’t the problem. It’s that Dylan usually garbles and glosses over his words when it comes time to bellow. I don’t know if it’s because he’s sick of having to sing them (Bob has played over 2,500 live dates on his appropriately-titled Never Ending Tour since 1988, with no signs of stopping) or because he can’t physically enunciate the hundreds of lines he’s written over the years, or whether he has become distanced from some of the songs that he wrote so long ago. This can lead to a sometimes alienating and confusing show. Should I be angry at Dylan for not trying hard enough? Can I blame him? It would be impossible to put myself into his shoes. No one knows what it’s like to be Bob Dylan except Bob Dylan. Touring for years on end must be a debilitating and monotonous experience, so should we expect Dylan to give it his all every time he plants his head towards the microphone? The answer to this can only be satisfied by understanding what the listener expects out of the relationship between the artist and the audience. As a Dylan fan should I expect some sort of connection to bloom each and every time he goes on stage? Should the performer perform for the audience or at them? Given the often personal nature of songwriting, should I even expect this? Do these songs still mean anything to Dylan the person? However you decide to answer those questions, Bob has seemed to take a passive, laborious approach to his performances.

I was much closer to the stage during the Americanarama Dylan show than I was in Johnstown, so I spent much of the time listening at ease and observing Dylan’s general physical appearance and body language. The show opened with the pessimistic anthem “Things Have Changed” as Bob stood out front and played harmonica. After an energetic rendition of “High Water (For Charley Patton)” he retreated back to his piano and stayed there for most of the show. I usually couldn’t tell which song they were playing until he reached the chorus or until a recognizable hook appeared; the songs felt more evocated by his band than by him. The sadness and anger that sparked him to write so many great songs seems to have been lost to time. Dylan shows nowadays are more of an intellectual exercise slash nostalgic relapse into recognizing Dylan as a gargantuan figure of 20th century music. I sat there and stared at the man for more than an hour, I figured out each song after some hesitation, and listened to them with a distinct appreciation for their greatness, but not necessarily for the performance that was happening. There was a man standing beside me during the show, and in between songs he would yell out an oddly matter-of-fact phrase which I think sums up the feelings we have when he see him: “Yeeeeeaaaaaah, Bob Dylan!” That is correct, sir: you are near Bob Dylan, and he is near you. Revel in the glory even if you’re tuning in to mish-mash.

The most enjoyable tunes were the newer, already-electric ones: “Love Sick,” “Duquesne Whistle,” “Soon After Midnight,” and “Thunder On the Mountain.” It was also a pleasure to hear him play the harmonica, around which he can maneuver with some versatility. His band felt a little reserved this time, seemingly just going through the motions. During “Tangled Up in the Blue,” people threw blue neon glow sticks into the air with each refrain of the chorus, to my bewilderment. They finished the set with “All Along the Watchtower” (which he’s played over 2,000 times) then came back and played “Ballad of a Thin Man” for the encore. As they locked arms and bowed to the audience, he took off his hat and gave a look of reverence and anxiety. Bob hasn’t given up; he’s either just worn out from burning in the spotlight for so long or he’s constantly touring because he knows how to do nothing else. Go see him if you haven’t. You won’t be blown away, but at least you can say to your friends: “I saw God, and he’s a 72-year-old Jewish man from Minnesota.”

Flaming Lips, Spiritualized, and Tobacco – Stage AE – July 16


Photo by Emily Keiser

The Flaming Lips (or FLips) shows have long been regarded as one of the heights of modern live music experience. It’s as if the punks never disrupted the heyday of prog, but instead stole all the nerds’ self-serious theatrics and twisted them for their own gleeful mischief. Wayne Coyne and crew kept the trippy visuals, bizarre props, lights and laser show that rival or surpass the sheer mind-blowing bombast of Prog rock at its height but cut down Prog’s excess with the efficiency and viscera of punk. They’re singing about prog subjects of space and aliens but there’s little to no intellectual detachment to be found. Instead, the band relies on fearless intimacy, energy, and emotion to make their songs about robots both good and evil are just as affecting as their more terrestrial love songs. They’re punks who read Asimov, proggers that grew up on Butthole Surfers, freaks who don’t accept any boundaries – societal or personal.

Unfortunately, the first opening act, Tobacco, doesn’t understand that simply being a “fearless freak” isn’t what gives the FLips staying power. Tobacco, the lead singer of Pittsburgh’s Black Moth Super Rainbow, and his boundary-pushing weirdness couldn’t distract me from the flat electronica being played over the 80’s workout and porn videos on the outside screens of Stage AE. Sure, it was fun to watch the videos, the “stage dancers” in masks who alternated between apathetic posing and half-assed exercise routines, and ask, “what the hell is going on?” but that’s about all I got out of the performance. There was little substance beyond a kind of musical sideshow act. It was a packaged “experience,” something to tell people about – “They were playing porn! Porn! During a concert!” – and then quickly forget. It was all viscera and shock, weirdness for the sake of being weird. It was a literal “freak show” with all the hackneyed characteristics of those shows of yore; the sights and sounds provoked and disgusted the eye and ear but stopped before reaching the brain. But maybe I’m being too harsh. It could be that chilly synths just don’t translate to a show before the sunset like a horror movie that’s so haunting at night and so laughable in the daylight. And I do admit that the performance did make me think but, unfortunately, not about Tobacco’s music. I wondered what keeps me coming back to the Flaming Lips as the stretch their music to novelty. Why do I get excited for a new album after unending jelly skulls and fetuses (fetusii?), youtube trickery, musical endurance races, and publicity stunts? What’s Wayne’s secret to show the humanity behind the Flaming Lips freak show?

Photo by Emily Keiser

Photo by Emily Keiser

As I was mulling it over, Spiritualized began a set of their pharmaceutical space rock. A church organ introduced “Here It Comes,” humming over soft violin and plinking xylophone, as the soft pseudo-hymnal drifted through the dusk. “Electricity” and “Let it Flow” were just as interstellar as the FLips but in a wholly different way: Pierce’s band drifted through space with the help of Valium and blues instead of rocket boosters and psychedelia. While I was initially skeptical of whether Spiritualized would fit into a bill with the FLips, I began to appreciate the similarities between the two bands.

At the end of a particularly intense instrumental outro to “Hey Jane,” my girlfriend turned to me, remarked that “it felt like I just had sex” and I was immediately struck by how appropriate her statement was. Every song began small, concerned with trivial things like a conversation or getting high on Christmas, and then built and built with tiny moments, an added musical phrase, another memory, a new voice, until the tiny things became so big that it felt like the whole stage was going to rise into the air. Every song felt like a gospel choir, a spaceship slowly taking off, or a building orgasm – something that built and built until it felt like I couldn’t keep everything inside of me and I was completely overwhelmed. It was space music with the help of religion and drugs, stuff far out with the help of things just a nightstand drawer away.

Spiritualized had an otherworldliness and immediate grandeur to their music that gave their songs a fittingly spiritual feeling but their primeval fury blunted all their spacy tendencies as well as humanizing their ethereal subject matter. Although they’re singing about interstellar, inhuman things such as God or the universe, it never feels like you’re viewing their subjects from a pew or telescope. You’re there, in the midst of stars or at the foot of God, listening to stories about these larger-than-life things with human ears, emotions, and understanding. There’s no distance to their music or message. It’s space rock that has its feet in down and dirty blues and rock just as the FLip’s ground their music in the chaotic and purely human fury of punk. The pain and empathy of Spiritualized bring them down to earth, the struggle and sex down in their blues nail their feet to the ground as they look towards the heavens. It’s the scars on their knuckles that make their folded hands so affecting, the presence of their eye on humanity that makes their pleas to God so powerful. I had figured it out. Weirdness isn’t what draws me to the FLips just as the airy minimalism wasn’t the true source of captivation during Spiritualized. So, by the time Wayne and his crew were setting up the spaceship, hundreds of lights, and laser cannons up for the FLips set, I was assured that behind all the intergalactic irreverence and weirdness, no matter what happened, it would be their sincerity and unselfconscious joy that I would remember. Because it’s the humanity behind the freaks, the struggle and love and hope behind their alien image, that’s the real heart of their music.


Photo by Emily Keiser


However, it’d be hard to forget the spectacle that the Flaming Lips put on. The stage was dominated by a pedestal front and center in the shape of a crashed spaceship. Wires of light flowed down the cracked surface of the ship, running past the bubble cockpit and down to the stage floor like veins. Every drum hit sent lights cascading down the ship, under Wayne, and back into the stage in a kind of reverse waterfall. Confetti cannons studded the stage, defending massive laser cannons and a screen that shifted like the surface of a lake, and an uncountable number lights that could be moved up and down the stage to stand like soldiers behind Wayne, focus on him like laser sights or point down at the crowd, into the stars, and everywhere between. Laser cannons shot blades of light above the audience that danced in the night skies like wildfire, drifting into patterns or furiously carving into the darkness. The giant screen behind Wayne’s skull/spaceship pedestal looked as if it was made of liquid and moved in the wind so that the images seemed to dance, lunge, and pulse with the images projected. Lining the stage were columns of light that dripped light like raindrops, shot walls of light at Wayne, or flashed patterns to the guitar. And at the front of all of it was Wayne’s nebulous shock of hair and goofy smile, kissing the weird baby doll thing that was attached via light umbilical chord to the spaceship, flashing his spotlight, and yelling at the crowd to get pumped up (like we even needed to be told). I’ve never seen a stage show like the Flaming Lips.

For a stage show as obviously complicated and rehearsed as the FLips, I never felt like a second was recited. New tracks like “Look… The Sun is Rising” and “The Terror” were tense and tight and revealed even more of the bracing desperation and hopelessness that terrified me in The Terror. While I appreciated seeing the songs performed in a live context, I hoped that the FLips wouldn’t play many songs from the new album. So, I was relieved when “The W.A.N.D.” had the whole audience bouncing on their feet and throwing up their fists as images of women and lights danced behind Wayne and the baby doll he cradled, cooed at, and kissed. When he wasn’t freaking everyone out with his weird plastic baby, Wayne was playing with his spotlight by shining it at people in the audience. I loved how he was shining the spotlight on the audience rather than at himself; when Wayne was in control of the spotlight, it was always pointed away from him. When it would shine right at my section I liked to think he could see the face of every person he hit with the light, and he could see for himself how much his music meant to that one person in the audience – “We’ve got the power now, motherfuckers.” He was our bandleader, our rabble rouser, our mouthpiece and we ate right out of his hands. Energy bristled off the crowd, ripping apart vocal chords and shooting fists into the air, and Wayne was at the middle of it with a goofy smile and upraised baby. It was weird and a little unsettling but I am much more comfortable with the bizarre, happy Wayne than I ever will be with an intense, sad Wayne.

​Fog poured around Wayne’s perch and enveloped the band as the lights pulsed in the midst like the breathing of an organism. The stage seemed to swell and exhale, pushing light and fog into the front rows as as the slow rhythm of “Try to Explain” beat from in the depths of the stage and Wayne’s voice floated out of the pure white mist. As Wayne sung about the death of love and pain without relief, I felt upset and scared. The Flaming Lips have always preached a message of love – love that conquers gravity, space, and time and overcomes any obstacle – and Wayne’s lyrics about hopelessness and the terror of the death of loss and the merciless continuation of life was like hearing Mr. Rogers swear – something so out of character of their message and personality that it disturbed me on a deep, personal level. I felt a real sense of relief when the band started the haunting “Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast” and then raced into “Silver Trembling Hands.” Anything, even two songs from a disliked album, was better than hearing Wayne sing about hopelessness and despair.

Wayne Coyne has always had my vote for Ambassador of the Human Race if aliens ever happen to stop by our tiny sphere. If he is anything like his persona expressed in his music with the Flaming Lips, he will be the perfect representative of the whole positive spectrum of human characteristics: the FLIps bizarre sense of humor and fun, Wayne’s sincerity and passion for whatever he is singing about whether it is a silly space operas or just the joy of a kiss (and he somehow makes both of those feel similarly interstellar), and his music’s infectious lust for life. But the Flaming Lips have never come across as trite or Hallmark-y. Their music knows that life is often hard, sad, and defeating – there’s a reason that their greatest song includes the lyrics “Do you realize that everyone you know will die” – but as he said at during “Race for the Prize,” “no matter how sad we get, if you cheer and clap loud enough you can make anything happy.” There wasn’t an ounce of artificiality to that statement; Wayne believes in what he sings or is one of the best actors I’ve ever seen. Wayne’s commitment to hope, love, and humanity, which he expresses in a way as sweeping and epic as the music he makes, is what makes him a specular performer and human being. If Wayne had doubts about people and love, what hope was there for the rest of us?

Photo By Emily Keiser

Photo By Emily Keiser

Wayne lead the band into an intense cover of DEVO’s “Gates of Steel” that had such wound-up fury and aggression that I was forced to rethink my belief that DEVO was a novelty act. The drumming and guitar meshed in a way that made it sound like a precision machine breaking down in the depths, something massive and cold and sharp slipping a cog so that what was once rhythmic becomes clanking and mad. Wayne mentioned that he has always felt like “that song is a secret code between people who can understand it. It’s encouragement for those who need it.” Even though I didn’t understand most of the words, the rage and protest of the song, the “secret code,” was crystal clear. Wayne’s rally call for others segued perfectly into “Turning Violent,” a protest song against his own vice. The bass burned like fire under his voice, casting crazy shadows of menace that grew larger with each repetition of “don’t turn violent/ you aren’t violent.” The implications of the phrase loomed behind the Wayne with every shotgun blast of light directed directly at his face.

“Turning Violent” signals a shift in The Terror and signaled a shift in the concert, too. Wayne was no longer consumed in gloom, literally and metaphorically, and the stage was newly revealed as the fog cleared and Wayne told the crowd to cheer as loud as they could because “this is a sad song.” But, he explained, “we know that life is sad. But sad songs are important because they get something out of you, something secret, and they let you share it with others and they can help you lift the sadness. They can make it easier.” Then, like a ray of light, the first piano notes of “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” flittered across the silence. A hundred upraised hands and voices held Wayne’s words above the wave of synthesizers and the last word, “love, love, love” echoed for minutes after the band had left the stage and the music had long since died. After a whole set of intense sadness and tension, hearing hundreds of people chant “love, love, love” in unison felt like an answer to the Terror that the band had sung about. No matter where the band was going and what it was playing, there was physical proof their original message lived on long after they’d gone. Love filled the silence. I guess there is some truth behind the old FLips shirt that bore the slogan “I experienced The Flaming Lips in concert and it made me a better human being.”

Wayne was impressed with how much power his words have, too, because the first thing he did when he came on stage was say how beautiful it was that he could hear “love” chanted all the way backstage. Then, while wearing a very appreciative (and possibly surprised) smile, Steven Drozd started the countdown of “Do You Realize???” and with a word, Wayne was bathed in all the colors of the rainbow. The stage, which had seemed like a slumbering monster, became a vision of bliss. The concert may have actually ended a song later but, for me, it was all over as I stood holding my girlfriend, whispering the words to one of the best love songs ever written in her ear and watching the crowd. I saw hundreds of faces washed in the colors of the rainbow that covered the back screen, confetti drifting down and in everyone’s hair, catching the light from the stage like so many stars that have fallen to earth, and a listening to Wayne’s words about life, death, love, and hope bouncing off our tiny stage and out into space – small things that added up to something extraordinary, something universal.

TV On the Radio – Mercy

12 Jacket (Gatefold - One Pocket) [GDOB2-30CH-001]

TV On the Radio has just released a new single called “Mercy.” I’m not all the way into the band, having only listened to Return to Cookie Mountain a handful of times. The song seems less experimental musically than many of the songs on that record. Drums are robotic, guitars are stiff and heavy, and synthesizers show up during the chorus. It sounds like The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Darklands meets Minor Threat shakes hands with “Alec Eiffel.” Tunde Adebimpe sings: “Just fell apart in the blink of an eye, better keep yours open wide,” later claiming that “I’ve seen tons of people looking lost and lethal,” in a confessional, cautionary tone.

Pixies – Bagboy


There is a new Pixies song. Let me repeat that. THERE IS A NEW PIXIES SONG. The weight of that sentence should be heavy enough to make you tremble in your boots with excitement. Exactly two new Pixies songs have been recorded in the past 21 years. The band broke up around 1992 when Kim Deal and Black Francis all but destroyed each other. They reunited for an extensive tour in 2004 and recorded “Bam Thwok,” playing dates sporadically ever since.

Whether you like the new song or not, I think the most important part about it is that it sounds like a Pixies song. Considering how long it’s been since they’ve been a complete, relatively functioning studio band, it is incredibly exciting to hear the band produce new material that maintains their unique and influential style. Frank Black’s solo career in the 1990s proved just how much of a Band the group really was. As Black Francis, he had a dominating role—lead singers tend to do that—but David and Joey and Kim were incredibly important to the dynamics of their sound. Without them it was not the same.

Though we were all sad to hear that Kim Deal left the band again a few months ago, it is great to see that “Bagboy” is a reformation back into the sounds of Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde. Opening with a synthesizer that recalls Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Black Francis talks, not sings, his usually silly, surreal lyrics over Lovering’s loopy beat: “Like when I hear the sound of feet slapping on the runway/Like a small bird pretty while it’s crapping on the new day.” The stop-start/loud-quiet dynamics are also back, as are Joey Santiago’s mountainous guitar licks. Joey can pack quite the musical punch into the simplest phrases. In fact, “Bagboy” is centered on just two notes. The band explodes as the chorus approaches and then they all let out a single, strained howl while a silvery wisp of a voice (not Kim Deal, unfortunately) exchanges the chorus with Francis’ unparalleled shouts. And then we go back to the synthesizer to rest. What we have here is prime cut Pixies.

It took a few listens, but “Bagboy” has sunk in and I really enjoy it. This return to form will hopefully mark the beginning of another leg of live dates or even a new album, rumors of which have been circulated by mystics for years. If only Kim could be there then we’d have peace in the Middle East. 75% of the Pixies is better than none at all, though. Let’s cross our fingers.

Belle & Sebastian and Yo La Tengo – Stage AE – July 13, 2013

high fidelity barry

I first heard of Belle and Sebastian in the movie High Fidelity. As the lovable Barry walks into Championship Vinyl Record Store, the music he hears stalls him and he asks: “What the fuck is that?” “It’s the new Belle and Sebastian,” says co-worker Dick. “Well that’s unfortunate, because it sucks ass,” Barry proclaims, later calling it “old sad bastard music.” I really love that movie; the book, too. They’re both musts for music lovers. And so I decided to listen to the band strictly because of that point of contention in the film. A healthy love/hate dichotomy towards established acts will always pique my interest. Any band that can generate heated debate will usually end up in my record rotation. Then I can either join the haters and tell the lovers that they’re stupid, or join the lovers and tell the haters that they’re jaded. After listening to Tigermilk a handful of times a few years ago, I decided to join the latter and I never looked back.  The band’s first three albums, especially If You’re Feeling Sinister, were chock full of beautifully arranged pop melodies and clever, romantic lyrics.

While making my typically wallet-draining summer concert list this spring I saw that B & S were coming to Stage AE in Pittsburgh for $44, so I put them near the top of the stack. Much to my surprise, I saw in small print under their name the words “w/ special guests Yo La Tengo,” and so the tickets immediately became a priority. Depending on whom you ask, the concert should have been labeled as a double headliner. This is not to disparage Belle & Sebastian front man Stuart Murdoch and his group, but many circles have deemed Yo La Tengo as one of the best (if not the best) rock bands to emerge in the past 20-odd years. To see them opening for another band can only be explained by their general lack of commercial success, something easily understood by the band’s often aggressive and difficult music. Belle and Sebastian haven’t necessarily seen chart success, either, but they have always stuck to their pop guns, giving them a wider audience to work with. And so they are rewarded with a headlining tour. Even then, I think the music should speak for itself. I love both bands, and labels should mean nothing. Whoever has their name in bigger print shouldn’t matter. Both groups are talented vessels of rock elation, and I was extremely glad to see them both in one night.

Yo La Tengo came onto the stage in their usual get-ups:  horizontally-striped t-shirts, jeans, and pairs of Chuck Taylors. Plain as plain can get. The trio epitomizes the old adage that all art is “love and theft.” They are music lovers just as much as their fans (their library of cover songs is extensive) and their being a rock band reflects that. They look like a group of broke college students, and because of that I find them very endearing and unpretentious. The hopeful person in me said that everyone else was just as excited to see them as I was, but as they began to play I scanned the area and saw looks bordering on malaise—not the bright, ethereal Disney eyes that I think such an event would plaster upon the faces of so many young adults. But I felt giddy knowing what lay ahead!

They opened up with the electric “Stupid Things” and played with a subdued, introductory intensity, lubricating our ear canals for the forthcoming rampage. Many of the unsuspecting souls were probably not taken aback during the softer acoustic songs like “Stockholm Syndrome,” “I’ll Be Around,” and the eminently danceable “Autumn Sweater”. I imagine some of them felt their hearts sink down into their assholes every time they saw a crew member give Ira Kaplan his Stratocaster. On “Decora” and especially “Ohm,” James McNew and Georgia Hubley plowed through the intense equatorial chasm that Kaplan creates whenever he picks up the instrument. While they switched between rhythm roles, Ira manhandled his guitar into an anxiety-ridden, catatonic state of psychosis during the solo sections. Placed between the man’s shy, almost inaudible singing, these bursts of energy became extraordinary. At one point he placed two guitars on top of an amplifier crisscrossed and slid them across one another in some sort of kinky, sonic mating ritual. After holding the guitar up above his head as a priest holds up the Gospels, Ira proceeded to slam his fist down on the whammy bar repeatedly, creating what sounded like an overly-aggressive urinal flushing in the depths of a deserted New York City subway bathroom. The group revels in offensive noise just as much as they revel in the gentle, shyer part of their music, and their set displayed both aspects beautifully. Here we have three incredibly normal-looking people evoking sounds that should otherwise be coming from the European theatre of World War II. Greatness comes from the most unsuspected places; one of those places is Hoboken, NJ. After finishing with a blistering rendition of the instrumental “I Heard You Looking,” they walked off stage as inconspicuously as they entered. I hope their set sparked an interest in their music among those ignorant of it.

belle sebastian 3

As night fell Belle and Sebastian came out, all twelve of them, head honcho Stuart Murdoch out front. The instrumental “Judy is a Dick Slap” opened the show, followed by the upbeat lament “I’m a Cuckoo.” I didn’t know what to expect at a Belle and Sebastian show. Most of their early stuff is very introverted, introspective stuff—music for contemplative isolation—so I had assumed everyone would be lying on the grass while fiddling their fingers and slowly bobbing their heads with sullen gazes on their faces. Murdoch’s lyrical content has always given off depressing vibes, but B&S is an extraordinarily talented pop band, so talented that the mood of their music can never be relied upon to reflect the mood of the words; the music is often made on its own terms. They can disguise a sad song with the prettiest music, even inadvertently. A highlight of the concert gave us a perfect example of this contradiction. Murdoch invited around a dozen fans (mostly female) onstage to have a dance party during a few songs. They began to play “The Boy with the Arab Strap” as fireworks went off over nearby PNC Park. It was the perfect visual representation of what I see when I listen to their more colorful tunes, and one that involved three of my favorite things: gunpowder, girls in sundresses, and songs with sexual devices merrily inserted into their titles.

Murdoch was surprisingly charming during inter-song banter, acknowledging local Scot Andrew Carnegie and attempting to name all of Pittsburgh’s interloping rivers. The band played “Take Me Out to The Ballgame” and followed it with the ballad “Piazza, New York Catcher,” a beautiful song with a story constructed almost entirely out of baseball metaphors. To highlight the ongoing fireworks, they played a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” Other favorites included the painfully sarcastic “Lord Anthony,” an archetypical B&S song about a bullied youth (“Tasting blood again/At least it’s your own”), “Mayfly,” stylophone solo and all, and the encore “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying,” which had the whole audience singing every word in unison, myself included.

The whole show was surprisingly full of this energy. Whenever freed of his guitar, Murdoch danced on stage to and fro—often poorly—making me feel better about my own inadequacies. I came away from the concert feeling joyous, ready to enter a Scottish boarding school and become a weirdo loner.

St. Vincent & David Byrne- Greensberg, PA 6/30


Even at 61, David Byrne is cooler than you. He’s better at multi-tasking, he’s the artistic pioneer of “interoperability” and all those other buzzwords, and one of the most interesting and unique performers alive. He’s the Dos Equis guy in bottle glasses, a “media guru” armed with a paintbrush, a pair of dance shoes, and a camera, and a snappy dresser to boot. He’s the epitome of the “modern man.” Well, a modern man. Byrne’s the prototype of geek chic; slap a big suit on Sheldon Cooper and loosen up those skinny arms with a little African polyrhythm and you have a serviceable Stop Making Sense parody. Byrne’s the excitable and enigmatic dweeb who made the nerdy, overambitious super genius approachable, if not cool. His time in the Talking Heads set the stage for the semi-serious irony, hyper-intelligent and self-aware criticism of the banality of both modern life and modern art, and the detached, magnetic charm of indie art rock while his solo work shows how an artist can continue to be both challenging and relevant. He’s made a musical career out of his wanderings into the many forms of art– from contemporary dance to sculpture to cinema. He’s a self-made man and a singular artist that has made a career of casting the low brow in a high brow light (or is it the other way around?).

Byrne’s performance, for it was a performance in the purest sense, at Greensburg’s Palace Theater with the amazing St. Vincent (the stage name of guitarist Annie Clark) had more of the feeling of a contemporary dance performance than a rock concert. It was weird, mystifying, entrancing, and complex – all the idiosyncratic strengths of the art rock legend and his protégée. It was a concise summary of the appeal and artistic characteristics of Byrne, a practical manifestation of what makes his art so singular and enduring. From the moment the audience entered the venue to a stage littered with brass instruments and the sounds of a nighttime insect chirps and buzzes over the house speakers, there was a sense that this was going to be much stranger and richer than just a simple rock concert. Maybe it was the theater’s plush carpet and literary murals instead of the typical rock venue’s beer and graffiti decorations but it felt like something was happening and I was wringing my hands in anticipation and excitement before the show even started. By the time Byrne, Clark, and their eight-piece brass backing band picked up their instruments to a chorus of chirping crickets and clapping, I knew I was in for something very special.

‘Who,” the single from Love This Giant was a primer for the whole rest of the show. The muscular brass section gave the Love This Giant’s single’s odd and unpredictable eclecticism a shot of friendliness while it underlined Byrne and St. Vincent’s detached lyrics. The choreography, too, was surprising as the whole band danced, marched, and “fought” with each other throughout the song, ducking their hips or diving with their shoulders as if throwing or dodging punches. It was fun to see Byrne up to his old tricks – herky-jerky movements and singing that belayed a nervousness hidden in his lyrics– but it was even more fun to see St. Vincent play along. She was the clockwork ballerina to Byrne’s animated mannequin; moving about the stage in juddering half-steps while smiling in a painted-on, almost menacing fashion as she ripped into her guitar with a shocking viciousness. Byrne’s always reveled in performance and paradox and I was pleased to see that he had picked a partner who could match him step-for-step with intellectual, musical and artistic ambitions.

Byrne’s love of performance and dance grounded the show’s highly intellectual and abstract in physical expression. Clark’s “Marrow” had the band lay completely still on the ground like corpses until the chorus of “H-E-L-P / Help Me” when Byrne would pop his head up and then flop back down before the next verse. It was a disturbing but very simple piece of choreography that underscored the already palpable menace and dread of Clark’s lyrics. Byrne’s dancing in “This Must Be the Place” was reminiscent of the “Once In A Lifetime” music video but his ballet-like posing destabilized the music video’s frantic, epilepsy-inspired movements with calming grace. When the band stopped for a full beat after “Love me until my heart stops,” my heart leapt into my throat as I realized that Byrne’s midlife crisis cry of “where does this highway lead to?” had just been answered with a simple declaration of “home” and one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. It was a tiny, but unbelievably significant expression of “This Must Be The Place’s” themes of hope, love, and happiness defeat over “Lifetime’s” alienation. For Bryne, one of the first masters of modern alienation and irony, his performance was startlingly warm, human, and sincere. The conga line for “Wild Wild Life” had the band marching in a circle and taking turns delivering each line á la True Stories. Accusations of pretentiousness are sure to come when smashing together rock and modern dance, but the show was absent of any self-seriousness. The dance was organic and came from the music, illustrating what was being said musically with physical movements. It was dance for those who didn’t know they like dance.

The set list followed a give and take formula where the band would play a Love This Giant track followed by a St. Vincent song and then a David Byrne song before returning to another Love This Giant song. This gave the concert a wonderful appropriate sense of chaos as Clark’s icy art-rock bumped right up against Byrne’s funky crowd pleasers. After a couple iterations, I began to see the ice under Byrne’s pop – the alienation and detached intellectualism that makes Byrne lyrics such as so affecting and yet so shocking – and the heart under Clark’s jagged edges. When the band rolled around to another Love This Giant track, the rough experimentalism of the album’s baroque pop, which I initially disliked, began to make sense. “I Am An Ape’s” stomping repetition and disjointed boogie hinted at the haunting melodies in Clark’s songs and Byrne’s own experimentalism that is often buried in his exotic and polished instrumentalism and others disclosed other hidden strengths of the artists. “Weekend in the Dust” burly brass twitched under Clark’s chanting, giving the song a nervousness and warmth that were at odds and yet flattering, and “The Forest Awakes” punches of horns matched Byrne’s spasms and military march at the side of the stage. For most of the concert Clark appeared to quite literally, take cues from Byrne but closer inspection revealed that more often than not, she took the lead.

It’s tempting to describe the concert as if the audience was just a witness for the trials of a musical apprenticeship but that would unfairly represent how much fun the show was. After all, Byrne is the reigning “Art Rock” icon and Clark is at the forefront of challenging, intellectual rock. So, it’s not hard to see the musical/lyrical irony and contradiction that is so prevalent in Byrne’s music in each note and word of Clark’s compositions. And so, for most artists, the opportunity to work with an idol of Byrne’s influence would cull any urge for bold self-expression and replace it with humbleness. But Clark isn’t one of those artists. Her own artisanship shined throughout the concert, complimenting and clashing with Byrne’s unique style. She commanded the band, incorporating a blast of horns to shoot “Northern Lights’” climax into the stratosphere and giving “Cheerleader” an arrogance that only lurked at the edges of the original song. Clark’s use of horns was confident, even comfortable and held her own against Byrne’s background of polyrhythm and world music. The juxtaposition of both artists revealed what was so distinct and yet so similar between their music. And it’s apparent from the Love This Giant tracks that the two are learning from each other.

Byrne’s “turns” consisted mostly of his most poppy songs and, as such, did not show Clark’s influence but his performances of Love This Giant were marked by a distinctly different style of performance and composition. “Strange Overtones” had the band marching in battle lines and slowly crashing together like waves over a beach, “Like Humans Do” bounced along with world music-influenced richness, and “Burning Down the House” rumbled and yelped to a chorus of audience voices. In contrast, “I Should Watch TV” slithered over Byrne’s stilted singing or skulked under his declarations. Byrne’s always had an edge of panic even under his brightest songs but his lyrical themes have never been so explicitly manifested in instrumentation. “Outside of Space and Time’s” regal and somber instrumentation quietly propped up Byrne’s mundane observations taken to a universal extreme. Byrne has never had a problem writing melodies that appeal to the ear but his lyrics have always been dense and challenging. In fact, I’d argue that his lyrics are so complex and refined that many don’t see Talking Heads as anything more than “just another pop band” because of Byrne’s masterful command of irony, parody, and paradox. So, it’s nice to see that Clark’s approach of music as an expression of lyrical themes makes Byrne’s brilliant lyrics much more approachable if only because of the increased conflict between lyrical and musical content. In turn, Clark’s lyricism was more concrete and less insular as her music opened up with the addition of horns and a bit of warmth. The two artists worked as a catalyst for the other and I walked away from the concert with a greater understanding and appreciation for the art of St. Vincent and David Byrne.

My Bloody Valentine – m b v


It was over 21 years ago that Loveless, My Bloody Valentine’s monumental shoegazing achievement, was released. In fact, the album shipped out only a few weeks after I was born. It was adored by a small but dedicated crowd, they toured a little bit, and the band didn’t produce anything for two decades. They never officially broke up, instead sitting in the rock and roll limbo known as a hiatus, surrounded by talks that they were slowly and meticulously working on their follow-up. The years piled up, and both the band and the subsequent album turned into a myth. Many people had assumed and accepted the fate that another My Bloody Valentine album was never going to happen.

But suddenly this past February the band announced on their Facebook page (keeping up with the times) that it would be released upon the public in a few days. Then on February 2, it actually happened. The album got a name, an album cover, and both physical and digital copies went up for sale at midnight. Shields wasn’t just blasting air to cool off fans’ demands. This was it.

People have been waiting for this record as long as I’ve been alive. The new album has nine tracks, meaning that it took about just over two years for Shields to complete each song, on average. In the amount of time it took me to become potty trained, this Irishman had something like two whole new songs under his recording belt. By the time I was entering junior high school, the number was increased to six. Now I sit here as a senior in college and the album is done and has been released into the public sphere. This kind of patience is often never rewarded in the rock world. Expectations, grandiose by nature, will always triumph over the actual product. Comeback albums often fail by the dozens. Was this one worth the wait?

I’m not the one to say; I technically didn’t have to wait that long, not being cognizant for most of the 90s. But I can tell you that the new My Bloody Valentine album, the self-acronymed m b v, is very far from being a failure. It’s really goddamned good, in fact. Sure, it’s not Loveless. They will never make another Loveless. The Stones never made another Exile, but that didn’t stop them from making a few more great records. m b v is a worthy follow-up to a legendary album. It’s been a long, long time, but m b v sounds like it was made by a band in the middle of marathon-length winning streak.

Kevin Shields is well-known for taking his precious time in the studio; I can’t blame him. The studio is his stomping ground; it’s where he hones his craft. On paper, My Bloody Valentine’s music is fairly simple. Any fool could pick up a guitar, learn the chords, and play these songs with some degree of success. But they are much more than that. What makes this band unique is their adherence to the bottomless pit of distortion, a toy that rockers have been fooling around with ever since Link Wray poked holes into his amplifier, to the chagrin of his studio engineers. To call their songs fuzzy would be a grand understatement. Layers upon layers upon layers of electronic effects and whatnot mangle and coagulate all of the instruments together into a gargantuan blizzard of tickly pleasure, like licking ferociously at a ball of steel wool. How Mr. Shields does this exactly I do not know, but I salute him. The band’s music does not so much sound like a group of individuals each contributing to the whole of a song. Each one is like a construct, something like a vision that you can imagine appeared in Shields’ head, a vision that we can see took immense tinkering to perfect and come into fruition. Shields paints mural-sized soundscapes, so big that we can keep looking at them and always find fascinating new details that we never previously noticed. He is more than just a lead guitar player or songwriter; he’s an arbiter and a supreme arranger of musical ideas and frameworks, akin to the likes of Brian Eno. These men use the power of the studio to create fascinating and elegant works of supreme beauty.



Gently and subtlety we are coaxed into the apocalypse with “She Found Now” as the band breaks the opening millisecond of silence with a soothing, introductory strum into which we are completely engulfed. A bass drum barely resonates in the background, and Shields plays a series of tuneless, silvery guitar lines seemingly at random throughout, like directionless arrows soaring past our heads as we stand motionless on a battlefield. Subdued, elegiac singing creeps into the forefront, massaging us into submission. “She Found Now” doesn’t coldcock you over the head like “Only Shallow,” instead injecting the fury in your femoral artery, letting the disease course its way through your veins. The song is a timid one, as if the band is warming back up to the olden days. Once the medicine/poison hits our system, it prepares us for the ride ahead.

Always maintaining a tangible presence on the band’s records is guitarist and singer Bilinda Butcher. She often takes the reins as lead vocalist, breathing unintelligible but beautiful whispers into our ears and providing the most immediate contrast to the band’s calculated grittiness. Butcher’s hushed intonations work perfectly with the horrendous babble Shields puts us through; the combination is blissful. Because her singing is often buried under a mountain of guitars, we must actively search for her. This journey can be excruciating, but the rewards for such travels are heavenly. When the melodies grow on you, they stick like glue. Butcher, like any beautiful woman, lights up any environment into which she is thrust. In “If I Am,” listen to her tame the acrid garble of Shields’ wahwah-powered rhythm playing. On the adrenaline-fueled “In Another Way,” she croons over a tossed salad of electronic cockamamie and dazzling feedback. Both songs are probably completely unfit for air on the radio, but she manages to make them palatable. Butcher acts as the alluring Homeric Siren; she is the melodic selling point for those of us out there unaccustomed to the deadly forces of distortion. After she has done her job, we will have been coaxed into believing that the oblivion surrounding her is equally as beautiful as her own voice, because it is.

2009 All Points West Music & Arts Festival - Day 2


“Wonder 2” closes the album with a furious windstorm of otherworldly drum flourishes. The song seems to have been recorded inside an abandoned Air Force hangar. Butcher’s voice sounds appropriately nervous and frantic, for good reason: the sonic space she fights for is a difficult battle between her and what sounds like an army of rabid lawnmowers turned self-aware and subsequently murdering any and all unsuspecting homeowners. My favorite song on the album is “Who Sees You,” the most astounding advertisement for the guitar in recent memory. Commanded and sung by Shields, the tune is a blistering slow-burn, a gargantuan butte of monstrous noise over which Shields moans and dines upon a simple but festering chorus of a guitar hook. The clicking of a robotic, mid-tempo drum beat keeps it together as the song pushes us further and further back into our seats until we become One With The Universe. “Nothing Is” seems to be a controversial track among fans. Half of us love it, the other half hates it. It’s rock and roll at its most mechanical: by the time you’ve listened to the first few seconds, you’ve listened to the whole thing. It pounds you over the head with a repeated guitar burst and a Neanderthal clank which puts us in a state of deep hypnosis. “New You” is the clear winner is terms of dancability. Shields plays the most ethereal guitar I’ve ever heard over a funky electric beat while Butcher caresses our souls, giving us those warm fuzzies we’ve been waiting for all these years.

Buy this record, and then play it; play it loud. The louder you play My Bloody Valentine, the better. If it isn’t bothering your neighbors, it’s not loud enough. So get yourself a nice pair of speakers and turn it up until you can feel your skin peeling off, otherwise you’ll be doing Mr. Shields a great disservice.

Wakarusa Music Festival – Part I

Back in January I began seeing a stream of Facebook statuses that caught my eye. These statuses were from a number of excellent bands; some I hadn’t seen live before,  others I longed to see live again. After reading statuses that each roughly read “we’re playing x number of sets at Wakarusa Music Festival this summer!” from Umphrey’s McGee, Dispatch, Moon Taxi, and Widespread Panic, among others, my interest was very thoroughly piqued, and I determined to scrape together the funds and the crew necessary to make a second summer roadtrip down south for a music festival. Last summer I managed to pull off a trip to Tennessee where I met up with Marco Esquandolas and met a number of my fellow Sunken Treasures bloggers; this year I doubled my roadtrip length (and gas bill) and trekked out to the Ozark Plateau in northwest Arkansas for 10th annual Wakarusa Music Festival.

The road trip itself was long, damaging to the environment and even more damaging to my and my fellow traveler’s wallets (however, taking a lumbering, gas devouring Toyota SUV to a summer festival is a far better choice than taking a fuel efficient Corolla – I’ll explain why later.) After leaving Cleveland, spending a few days in Pittsburgh, traveling west across nowhere Ohio, going through Columbus, heading SOUTH through nowhere Ohio, passing through Cincinnati and over the Ohio River, traveling across Kentucky (where the grass is green, not blue – disappointing), and south into Tennessee to Nashville, I reached my first stop off point – a campsite to the west of the city. Why pay for a hotel when you’re going to be camping for five nights anyway? After eating dinner at B.B. King’s in downtown Nashville and enjoying some live music with dinner, my motley crew and I retired for the night at camp.

Fast forward through the whole of the next day, including a stop to search for whiskey and beer – festival downtime essentials – in a run down corner of Little Rock, I arrived at the entrance to Wakarusa, perched high up at the end of a perilously winding mountain road. Fast forward again through an hour or so of setting up the tent and campsite, with periodic worried looks being exchanged by everyone in the general area over the ominous, grey clouds gathering on the horizon, and Wakarusa 2013 is underway with some surprise pre-festival shows.

While relaxing and enjoying a lukewarm PBR, my group and I discussed the loud music we heard being played in the distance. After listening a bit longer, and upon hearing a cheering crowd accompanying the music, I suggested we head in the direction of the music and search for a surprise show. Sure enough, a five minute walk from camp revealed the Backwoods Stage, nestled in a copse of trees on a corner of the festival grounds. On stage was Earphunk, who wound up having the honor of being my first Wakarusa performance.

Earphunk also happened to be one of the most anticipated acts of one of my fellow travelers, so the surprise of being able to catch an unannounced, pre-festival performance by them was a pretty grand kickoff to our stay on Mulberry Mountain. Earphunk plays exactly the kind of music its name would suggest – funk. This isn’t just a run of the mill, bunch of white guys trying to sound like Sly & the Family Stone or Parliament Funkadelic sort of band. Earphunk is high-octane, engaging, groovy, electrified funk turned up to eleven. With catchy lyrical and melodic hooks bookending meandering, wandering funk jams on the guitar, bass, keys, sax and drums, you either wear yourself out in the audience, grooving to the music, or you’re doing it wrong.

After catching the last 20 minutes or so of Earphunk’s pre-festival set, we stuck around for a second funk group, San Francisco’s Afrolicious. Similar to Earphunk in their high energy, crowd engaging, funky set, with the addition of some great afros (yes, afros – go figure).

Not wanting to wear ourselves out the night before a jam packed first day of the festival, and having seen some truly wicked storms coming our way on a neighbor’s phone, my group of wayfarers and I decided to retire to our tent for the night, battening down the hatches, doubly securing the stakes to our tent, and breaking out the camping chairs, whiskey and playing cards. After an hour or two of cards and whiskey, yet none of the storms we had heard so much murmuring about, the three of us sprawled out onto the floor of our incredibly spacious tent and drifted off to sleep.

A night of desperately needed sleep, however, following eight hours of driving, setting up camp, and in preparation for twelve hours of music the next day, was not to be. At around 2:30-3:00 in the morning I was woken up by rain being thrown against our tent at an increasingly violent speed – the storms we had heard murmurs about and seen radar proof of had arrived, albeit a bit late. Within 30 seconds of being awoken I found myself experiencing my first ever late spring storm served up southern plains style. Even more exciting yet, I got to experience this storm sitting in a cheaply made nylon tent… in a field… with only a 1998 Toyota 4Runner to retreat to in case things got really bad. Lo and behold, things got REALLY bad. Though on that first night we stuck it out and held down our tent for the 10-15 minutes or so of cyclonic winds, buffeting rain and nearly constant lightning – which, by the way, was probably striking the ground all around us – we would resort to retreating to our citadel, the Toyota, by weekend’s end. A gentler (but not gentle, mind you) rain continued on for the remainder of the night, giving my troupe and I the chance to sleep dry-ish and comfortable-like. Little did we know at 3:30 in the morning of Wakarusa, day one, that that sleep was as comfortable and dry as we would be for the next four days. The rain we fell asleep to that night would continue on with only brief breaks until late-afternoon the next day…

Earphunk – getting down, getting funky

METZ, Titus Andronicus, and Fucked Up in the Electric Ballroom

I walked out of the Electric Ballroom looking like I’d been mugged. Limping, I crossed over to Camden Town Station and wiped the sweat from my face. I wrung out my shirt while waiting on the platform. Straining to hear the conductor over the horrible ringing in my ears, I made my way on the train and sat, slumped, exhausted, and covered in other people’s sweat (and a little blood) on the far end of the tram. I expect I looked like a crazy person or a homeless man in my torn jeans, combat boots, and bruised arms, legs, neck, and ribs with a shirt tied around my belt loop like a flag but I can’t be exactly sure why people didn’t set next to me. Probably the most disturbing thing, the real reason I imagine that I sat by myself throughout my trip back to my dorm, was that I was smiling like a maniac through my matted hair and kept chuckling to myself. And why shouldn’t I have been? I had just seen the best concert of my entire life.

Damien Abraham had just punched me in the face and I couldn’t stop smiling. I’d been tossed about in a wave of bodies, elbows, and fists as they pummeled, jabbed, and slammed up against every inch of me to every Titus Andronicus song and I was near hysterics. I’d inflicted immeasurable pain on my eardrums as METZ defiled the grave of grunge with a jackhammer and pyrotechnics and I was beaming, positively giddy with energy. I couldn’t sit still. I was laughing, near tears, and bouncing up and down on my stupid tiny London tube seat. It felt like my whole body was about to catch fire and I was doing all I could to contain the fire to just the inside of my chest. I was alive, god! I’d survived a Fucked Up show and I’d come out with wounds. I was here in London and I’d got the shit kicked out of me by the audiences of the very country that birthed punk. I was alive and I had hugged Damien Abraham. I’d seen my favorite hardcore band in concert and its lead singer had punched me in the face. Lester Bangs once wrote “Good rock ‘n’ roll is something that makes you feel alive. It’s something that makes you feel human.” The show in the Electric Ballroom was without rules and reason, remarkably brutal and yet friendly, incoherent and sublime. It was transcendent and stupid. It was “good rock ‘n’ roll” in every sense of the phrase.

METZ’s set sounded like Godzilla in his death throes. Their guitars curdled electricity into inhuman screams and their drumming seemed to drive the whole stage into the ground with each hit. The band flew through its eponymous debut, which was one of my favorite records released last year, like they were playing for their lives. Each song was desperate and furious and Edkins moved and sang like a man being battered by invisible demons. “Headache’s” slight harmony spoiled under the heat of the band’s assault to become a rotten thing, all brutal energy and fury with only slivers of melody. The single-minded “Get Off” was so charged up and fast that it was like being tossed under a Formula One racer and “Rats” lurched and swung at the audience with apocalyptically loud drum salvos and broad, blurry guitars. Every single song sounded better live and the new songs that they premiered had me jumping just as high as the ones I’ve lived with for the past year. METZ made their name in live shows across Toronto and their disorienting and devastating set shows the true power of a great live band. Edkins was dripping with sweat while Menzies and Storach threw themselves around the stage and against their instruments with reckless abandon. Band and audience alike appeared as if they’d survived an assault by the end of the show. METZ was not the opening band the Ballroom crowd was expecting and I loved seeing the looks of confusion and pints on the bar shake with each detonation from the stage. Serves them right for thinking that METZ were going take it easy and leave quietly.

Titus Andronicus ushered in a wave of people and a sea of voices to pound me up against the walls of the barrier. Each of Patrick Stickles’ lyrics boomed back at him as if in by echo chamber. Seemingly every hook stirred the mosh into a fury, bouncing and sucking people into it’s battering, jumping center. It was pretty cool to hear the melody. Then I braced myself instinctly for the coming blows to my back and the sudden, desperate push towards the stage, and then relaxed as the mosh ebbed behind me. It was like riding the crest of a wave, which was an exhilarating experience that I’ve never had in any concert before. The audience was frothing with adulation and movement throughout the show as if Stickles was some New Jersey Prospero, stirring a tempest by mere words. The band’s larger-than-life punk had similarly gigantic performances of “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With The Flood of Detritus,” “In a Big City,” and other tracks from Local Business but it was their Monitor and Airing of Grievances tracks that got the biggest response (or the most personal bruises). “A More Perfect Union” and the epic “The Battle of Hampton Roads” had the Ballroom lurching around with leaping bodies and shaking with the noise of screams reverberating off its walls. Hearing people scream back Stickles’ Springsteen jokes was unreal (did you know they LOVE him here?) but the sound of hundreds join in a chorus of bitching about how much Jersey sucks made me feel just like I was home in the states. Some things never change no matter where you go. And it’s nice to see that London’s punk scene can get just as rowdy as shows in DC and the states. A sloppy and only a tad mocking cover of Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova” proved that punk’s still got a sense of humor while the pairing of “Titus Andronicus Forever” and “… And Ever” showed it has still got teeth in its old age. Ah, “punk isn’t dead, it just smells funny.”

METZ going at it.

METZ going at it.

I admit I didn’t hear a single word of Fucked Up’s set even though I was singing the whole time. The second Pink Eyes, AKA Damien Abraham, stepped on stage, the Ballroom was thrown into a roiling pitch. And Abraham was the mad captain in the midst of its rage, screaming into the gales of sound and throwing himself into the sea of moshing maniacs. He was a cannonball of energy, an unstoppable Canadian force of nature, and he seemed to be everywhere at once. There he was hugging a guy! There he was in the midst of the mosh! There he was on the stairs or balanced precariously on the railing or in the front of the stage again loosing his barbaric yawp. Since I was right up front on the railing, I was up close and personal with Damien as he pressed against me to sing, squeezed my cheeks playfully as I roared the chorus of “The Other Shoe” in his face, and, yes, accidently punched me square in the face. Oh, I would have been happy to tell strangers that I was punched in the face by my favorite hardcore singer but I’m even more pleased to say that Damien immediately apologized, pulling me in to him to ask if I was okay and, after the show, personally apologized again. Even in an environment where it’s perfectly okay to shove, smash, and slam your neighbor into their neighbor or the nearest wall, I’ve never felt more at home in a concert. I felt like I was a part of a group, like when I screamed myself hoarse for “Queen of Hearts” and the rest of David Comes to Life those around me also cherished and loved the epic romance of David and Veronica. Hell, maybe they, too, wrote the lyrics of the album down like it was a stage play, obsessed over the narrative and characters, and analyzed the words of Abraham like he was a punk Sondheim. Or maybe they just liked the crunch and thunder of the guitars. Whatever the case, I felt like I was part of a community bound by Damien’s performance and charisma.

I’ve never seen or been to a show that gave me such a visceral connection to the performers and people around me. Honestly, I don’t know how I can ever go back to another concert after the Fucked Up show. It’ll feel tame, lifeless. I can’t imagine a performance with purer passion and energy, anyone more in love with their music and their fans than Abraham’s hugging, screaming rowdiness, and anything that will make me feel more alive, more in love with everything around me, than Fucked Up. It’s ridiculous to claim that a band called Fucked Up can make the world seem a little more beautiful and people friendlier, but maybe that’s the best part of rock and roll. Maybe that transcendent stupidity is the key to the magic that makes a punch in the face a highlight of a night and a screaming bald man a poet. Whatever it is, as I exited bruised, battered, and struggling to breathe or hear correctly, I was extraordinarily euphoric. I was alive. I was in London. And I had just seen the best concert of my entire life.


Deerhunter – Monomania


Have you ever seen something so ugly that you wanted to shove it under a microscope and get as close a look as you could at it? See it for what it truly is? Learn things about it that no else would come close to knowing? When we see that a car accident is about to happen, we know we should look away, but we all know that everyone wants to stare at it dead-on with our eyes blared and no intent on blinking. People have a fascination with death. Though we hate it (for good reasons), it’s a mystery; as curious creatures we become fixated on things that we do not or cannot understand. Certain knowledge is boring, but possible knowledge will always have a seductive power. Because death will always be a mystery to living, it will always be a point for us to wonder about it.

Noise music has this same elegance and attraction. It gives us a glimpse into the unknown, into nothingness and into the vacuum of space. Musical theory is a language, and noise breaks down this language into gibberish. Like death, noise and distortion should be something to scoff at and reject. It is has no order and therefore shouldn’t have a place in this universe. It is the musical equivalent of incestuous union: it is wrong and it is gross. “Music should sound like this,” the powers that be tell us, and so we make music that breaks those rules. So noise becomes inherently revolutionary. With it we can destroy the competition, whoever that competition is. It is vague, and it doesn’t accept anything but itself on its own terms. It is incontrovertibly ugly, and so we must pay attention to it.

Bradford Cox is the 31-year-old leader of Deerhunter, a rock band from Georgia that dabbles in the noise profession. Cox has Marfan Syndrome, a disorder that affects a person’s connective tissue. Cox is slender, he has very little muscle mass, his limbs are disproportionately elongated, and his cheeks seem to have been chiseled straight down out of the side of a block of Italian marble. He resembles that of a frightening vampire-like creature, just emerging out of the depths to release a record every few years or so. Cox was dealt an unfortunate hand when he was born, and so it seems that he wants to take revenge out on all of us by annihilating our eardrums.


Monomania, the band’s latest studio release, is a really fantastic car accident; it allows us to see Cox as naked as ever, better than the day his mother birthed him. It has the group working the “punishment/reward” scenario as album formulation. The word “monomania” means to have a compulsive obsession with one thing, and Cox has an obsession with nausea-inducing bliss. But the man works these moments in at the right moments—Monomania is not a slop bucket filled to the brim with atonal mush; songs on the record often transition between gentle and hostile, making the hostile parts all the more noticeable. Deerhunter imposes episodes of aggravating pain on us, and then rewards us with moments of clarity, musical literacy, and even some rhythm. You’ll know you reached a certain level of psychosis, as I have, when you start believing that the quiet parts are the punishment and the loud ones the reward. The opening two cuts elicit a one-two punch. “Neon Junkyard” opens with a swampy, unorganized instrumental patter that sounds like something off of Trout Mask Replica as Cox makes a sort of skewed belching sound. “Leather Jacket II” is a descent into madness, starting with an irritating but coherent guitar riff that becomes less and less pronounced as a chorus of feedback engulfs any and all musical ideas.

But Cox doesn’t completely avoid traditional musical structures. Many songs succeed as straightforward rock pieces. “Pensacola” and “Dream Captain” are two enjoyable escape anthems that sound like Creedence Clearwater Revival on amphetamine. “Back to the Middle” is the most immediately hummable cut, where Cox finds himself confused by heartbreak.

Most of Cox’s lyrics on Monomania contain themes of loneliness and self-loathing, probably stemming from a dissatisfaction with his physical appearance. Cox employs noise music as a cathartic experience, allowing him to transcend all the bullshit he probably had to put up with while growing up. Who can blame him? I’d be making these noise too if I had a connective disorder. Many of these songs are mini-suites, starting out calm and relaxed and then building up into crescendos of viciousness. The man knows how to pull the Rope-a-Dope: he has us walking near the pit’s edge and then pushes us over it. “Monomania” is the album’s whirlwind, the standout piece. Cox pleads to God or whatever he believes in: “If you can’t send me an angel/Send me something else instead.” The man sings in a nasally snarl, as if he is sneezing and vomiting on the listener. Then for the last three minutes Cox repeats ad infinitum:


And then the music gets louder and louder and becomes more incoherent and absolute chaos erupts. Cox’s gurgled chants disappear behind the layers and the music morphs into the sound of a moped speeding off into what can assume is either a sunset or a rocky cliff. Cox has become obsessed with his obsession.

Monomania is a very good album, and succeeds as a combination of rock music as dysfunctional hysteria. It is sad to know that Bradford will never be able to do anything about his condition, but if he keeps cranking out stuff like this I’m sure no one will give a shit what he looks like. Here’s another one to put on the record shelf at Gitmo.

Shake the Baron – Ghost Hits


Shake the Baron is a band hailing from Brooklyn, New York, the borough that has brought us the neuroticism of Woody Allen to the brutal depression of The National. They play a brand of rock music that calls back to the English “pub rock” scene, sounding like a lighter, slowed-down version of Arctic Monkeys. Singer Andrew Oedel intones in a shrill timbre resembling David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors. Drums often lead the pack in the music; Matt Addison’s thudding beat is the most visceral, enchanting part of the band’s music. A rhythm and lead guitar often intertwine to create a metallic spider web of riffage. The opening cut, “Jones,” on their second release Ghost Hits starts with a guitar line that seems to poke holes in your skin, sounding like the beep of a heartbeat monitor gone awry.

“Crazy Align,” the album’s first single, remains one of its standout tracks. Opening with pounding drum beat and chunky guitar riff that sounds like a herd of buffalo stampeding towards the edge of a cliff, the song is characteristic of the musical structures around which Shake the Baron create their tunes. Tempo and tonal changes are consistent throughout the record. The song reaches a peak during the chorus as Oedel’s voice soars with a fidgety power. As icing on the cake, the music video features a fictional ex-band member exploding the group apart Scanners-style with telekinetic powers so he can save his kidnapped girlfriend.

Like Longstreth’s Dirty Projectors, Shake the Baron’s guitar work is very angular, often expressing itself through riffs that seem incomplete but compliment their geometric rhythmic patterns. Ghost Hits’ title track stands as the archetypal culmination of the band’s sound. Addison click-clacks his way via an off-kilter pattern through a clean, tubular riff. It can be difficult to know when to stomp your feet and when to hold them still, but once you can land the beat and learn to move along with it, the song becomes that much more rewarding.

The difficulty with music like Shake the Baron’s (and even sometimes Dirty Projectors’) seems to be what I would call Joni Mitchell Syndrome. In the past week I’ve been listening to Mitchell’s highly lauded album Blue for the first time. What I’ve noticed on it—something which was especially evident on her debut album—is an overwhelming melodic complexity which I think works against the music. Mitchell’s voice is indeed very beautiful, but what she can afford with her incredible range cannot be purchased easily by the listener. I’ve probably listened to the album a dozen times and can only sing along (or at least mimic) to a few tunes. Her voice is all over the place, and ventures into unwarranted territory more than I’m comfortable with. After listening to Ghost Hits a number of times, I’m getting the same vibes. The band does lay out a relatively unique soundscape, but I’d be hard-pressed to sing along to many of the tracks. The vocals are everywhere, and I have trouble distinguishing between which movements are which. The music also seems schizophrenic, sometimes not knowing what to do with itself. Though these complexities are interesting and would be difficult to replicate, the music will never mean anything if it remains just as foreign with each listen; the best music will sink in eventually, no matter how difficult it is at first. Shake the Baron are at their best when their music is most straightforward, like on “Crazy Align,” which goes to show the truth that Keith Richards brought down upon us when he said that if you want to make great rock and roll all you need is “five strings, two notes, two fingers, and one asshole.”

Pretty Please – Delicious Pastries


The hardest part about a revival is getting people interested in what is being resurrected. You’ve got to convince the audiences that bringing something back to life is a good idea. It’s not enough to just start selling “birth control glasses” and will them into vogue – they’ve got to be worn by NBA stars and ironic indie heroes first. Nothing’s ever dead; It’s only gone until it’s wanted again. This cycle of demand is the same thing that gave us some of the decade’s greatest treasures – It’s the source of hope that created a trilogy of good to great Batman movies for comic fans who held onto the idea that eventually audiences would tire of camp, facilitated Arrested Development’s return as comedy fans reeled from the percussive hammering of laugh tracks and broad stereotypes, and supported the rise of vinyl, large hunks of black plastic encased in covers ripe for framing, in an age of digital musical ownership where Zappa’s discography can fit into a pocket. Unfortunately, this same rule created the unholy demand for a new Creed tour and album after Nickleback’s horrifyingly successful crusade to revive generic buttrock. Like Uncle Ben said,” with great power comes great responsibility.” The Delicious Pastries are doing their darnedest to return to the 60’s and, thankfully, they’re only concerned with bringing back music.

I’ll take a melody over a mod every time but I’m pretty partial to the taste of both of them together. Delicious Pastries Pretty Please serves up the style of the Who and the Kinks with dashes of retro American rocker flavor courtesy of the Beach Boys and even a dollop of The Beatles “mocker” melodies into a sweet tasting mix. They’re sugary sweet and appeal way more to those who cherish a truly massive a sing-along chorus than making sense of lyrics like “I’m bringing cakes / I heard him singing mistakes / everybody’s coming ‘cos it’s totally snakes!” But I guess never trust a skinny cook or humorless popstar. Their occasional nonsense doesn’t detract from some deliciously (ha!) catchy stuff and while their lyrics might not be exactly equivalent to working through a Sudoku or even a crossword, they’re in no way bad for you. In fact, when Jonathan Chamberlain measures out his words instead of adding a pinch of sorrow, sweetness, or silliness where needed, Delicious Pastries are capable of making songs that as sweet as they are satisfying.

The album’s single, “safe and sound,” carries Chamberlain away in a flume of buoyant harmony and slick guitar work and before dumping him in a pool of psychedelic fuzz near the end of the song. It’s like a water slide! But it feels more like a rollercoaster as Chamberlain slips and slides through his unrequited relationship before ending up alone and promising “this love is gonna grow now, darling / it takes some time / I’m gonna make her mine / and I will do all those things / that I would have done unto me.” Too bad she’s already “buried her feelings” and he’s hearing this call from “the not so distant past.” It’s a gloomy thought done so pleasantly that it only feels like an addition to the thrills of the music, a lyrical tunnel that the music rushes through to come out brighter and catchier when it pops out the other side.

There’s self-awareness to the band that makes their music and delivery less innocent than what they are imitating. They’re an ironic 90’s band imitating their 60’s heroes. If they don’t perform in matching flannels and converses they’re missing out on a great opportunity. The clomping “Dad” toys with dorky palindrome jokes and biblical menace over vocal trickery while “International Tanlines” rearranges a Brian Wilson-esque dirge with guitars seized from Weezer. Delicious Pastries is omnivorous in taste, alluding to MST3K, The Beatles, and the Bible, while musically quoting the power pop of Big Star, the majestic self-indulgency of ELO, and just about any other major and minor influence in pop of the last fifty years.

The band’s got a knack at making songs seem bigger than they are. Like the Fleet Foxes’s songs always sound like two or three songs welded together, it’s hard to believe their songs don’t burst from all the ideas running through them. “Something Else’s” slow plod towards destruction has the tang of Elephant 6’s lightheaded psychedlia before skidding around a blast of noise to dive right into a retro arcade ping that washes into a sea of vocal harmony. The upbeat “metaphors” barrels through three-chord punk, sock bop vocals, and a Beach Boys ballad all in the course of two and half minutes. Luckily, they’ve get their genre hopping habit to work to their advantage. The backflip from ballad into a punkish blitz in “metaphors” after “And we both pretend / that the ship’s not going down/ but it is” feels like a punch in the gut while the gentle Kinks segue in “Birthday Fever” feeds into the lyrics calm pleas for forgiveness. Delicious Pastries restlessness assures that if listeners stick around long enough, they’re going to hear something that they like.

“Marian,” unfortunately, stretches the listener’s forgiveness for Delicious Pastries’ hyperactivity to its breaking point. By the time the halting melody of the first third of the track has just about worn out its welcome, the band spins into a swinging pop beat but throws so many obstacles in the way of it that the whole melody gets confused. It feels like just as soon as the band had me hooked and ready to sing along, they’d throw in an a capella aside. Pop songs don’t have to be sing-alongs to be great but when they’ve got choruses as catchy as “Marian” and I can’t sing along, I’m a little disappointed. “Marian” has the unique problem of being a disappointing song because of what it does so well and stop instead of because of what it does. Still, it contains some of their cleverest lyrics (“You’ve made it pretty clear / that you’re no open book / and I don’t care / please let me dog-ear a couple of your pages”) and most dynamic songwriting. It just falls victim to its own ambition.

I don’t know if the “king of pop” is a hotly contested crown in Pittsburgh but Delicious Pastries have a pretty strong shot at taking the throne. Their concomitant ironic and sincere take on retro pop is bright and funny and their ambitious composition is unpredictable and catchy. Delicious Pastries makes a heck of a argument that there should be a greater demand for smart retro pop.

Ezra Koenig teaches time management


Congratulations, everyone. Ezra Koenig is now openly singing about death, for nearly an entire recording. And he’s not being too incredibly subtle about it. What has the world come to? What’s going on in the head of such a handsome, well-put-together young man to stoop down to such levels and reach for such a bleak topic this early in his career? What have we done to this poor little lad? It’s true that his bohemian bones are approaching 30, but does he believe that he’s truly staring into the void? Surely that can’t be the case. He’s smart enough to know that that isn’t anywhere near “old.” Maybe in rock and roll terms it is, but in this day and age we keep our rock stars held up by the bells and whistles known as the technology boom. If Ezra ever finds himself OD’ing on some fine old china white, he can just let Siri know and she’ll call the ambulance right away, keeping him fresh and sprout to flicker on in the spotlight for years to come. These days 30 is practically kindergarten. I don’t think Koenig plans on dying anytime soon, though. So what has inspired him to go full-on Dr. Doom? What’s the catalyst for this monstrously inevitable concept of a pop record? It’s you, the young, impressionable readers of this blog! The Millennials. The Internet Generation. You who desire nothing else but instant gratification and self-affirmation. What with our Facebooks and Twitters we can distract ourselves from reality so easily and wherever we want, whenever we get bored with it. We live in the moment while simultaneously completely avoiding it. You assholes are the reason why Mr. Koenig must plumb the very depths of his soul and elicit such gruesome realities upon the general public.

But don’t feel too bad about yourselves, or the band. Vampire Weekend’s third effort, Modern Vampires of the City, doesn’t have the group slunk down in a crippling depression. This is most definitely an album about death, but it is not the band’s attempt at reconciliation with it. These guys aren’t even close to smelling that big ol’ pie in the sky. This is no Time out of Mind or American IV. Koenig hasn’t looked at the Grim Reaper square in the eye and he isn’t coming back to report in on it. This record is all about how to and not to deal with the passage of time; it is partly introspective and partly accusatory. It’s not that we should be worried about them; it’s Ezra and company who are worried about us. You see that damp mist hovering over the city on the cover? If you look up and stare real hard you’ll find that it’s hovering right above you. You see, we are the Modern Vampires he’s talking about. Us young folks. It’s true that we really don’t know how to manage our time very well, and so Ezra and company would like to elaborate just why that can be a very bad habit to have. Modern Vampires is a work of libel, directed at the privileged post-Moderns birthed by the baby boomers.

Some listeners may be off-put with the new recording. “What’s with the sad bastard music all of a sudden, Mr. Koenig?” they might say. But this is a Vampire Weekend album just as much as Contra and their self-titled debut.  The band’s status as classically-trained Columbia-educated Ivy Leaguers, a subject which has come into discussion just as much as their music itself, has given them a reputation as being snooty, upper-class types who can’t relate to the majority of its audience. We can’t really expect them to put out twelve songs about how all the world is blue and really take it seriously, can we? I think they can. If you thought F. Scott Fitzgerald succeeded with The Great Gatsby, let it be understood that this band is trying to do the same thing. Vampire Weekend’s music has always been tinged with a stain of disillusionment, it just happens to be upper-class, orchestrated, intelligent disillusionment. The peppy pop of the first two records did a surprisingly efficient job of masking the often depressive content of their lyrics. It features engagingly complex, African-inspired arrangements vis-à-vis Paul Simon’s Graceland, a musical venture that would be seemingly incompatible with such downtrodden feelings. But the man pulled it off. Koenig had a song called “Holiday” which was actually about the Middle East, and he introduced many to the almond-based beverage horchata (I still haven’t tried it yet) in a tune about a disintegrating relationship. Koenig writes songs in the grand tradition of the witty but eternally-morose statesman, looking at the world from the outside, seeing how truly terrible everything is, then turning it into a big joke.


Holy shit, look at that sweater placement.

And so on Modern Vampires Ezra and company execute this joke with the mastery of a Carlin or Pryor. Like Fitzgerald, Vampire Weekend uses the imagery of upper-class American life and subverts it. The feelings of complacency and ecstasy ingrained in the young and rich are shown to be a poison on both themselves and the people they come into contact with. In these songs we have visions of young people, gloriously entranced by a live-in-the-moment attitude and an acute awareness of the present. The idea of death evades them, and so it becomes all the more sinister in its presence. In the opening cut “Obvious Bicycle,” a young man gives up on himself because the world has given up on him, and so he turns to thoughts of suicide and he becomes paralyzed by indecision. He vies for death as liberation, but the minutiae of the life he wants to escape stops him from succeeding. Koenig schizophrenically cries out to the man: “So listen, oh/Don’t wait.” Does he fulfill his desires or listen to his friends’ pleas?

The ensuing tracks are also fights against time, asking whether the knowledge or ignorance of death can free us or imprison us. In “Diane Young” and “Hannah Hunt,” Ezra evokes the eternally youthful image of a beautiful woman and uses it to scorn their dalliance with the moment. Diane Young (a homophone for “dying young”) “torches Saabs” but has the “luck of a Kennedy,” and she cannot grasp the whole picture. Hannah Hunt and her lover become blinded by the alluring feeling of love, instantaneous and ever-present, unable to understand what’s ahead of them because they have their “own sense of time.” Robin Williams was very convincing in Dead Poets Society. It’s true that Carpe Diem is an honorable sentiment, but only when allied with a certain sense of caution and reverence.

Three tracks deal with God and religion, issues forever wed with death and dying. Ezra yells at God in “Ya Hey” (a.k.a. Yahweh), wondering why he never answers the cries of his children. In “Step,” the Big Mighty is pinpointed as the perpetrator in the dissolution of a relationship. Our narrator accepts the break-up and then rejects life. No one gets saved in “Unbelievers,” where the faithful and the heathens both end up floating in limbo. Unlike Ms. Young, these characters seemed focused on what will happen after we die; but like her, they also diminish themselves in the process.

Ezra’s characteristically esoteric knowledge of geography also comes into play. About 16 or so places are mentioned, a number of which I’ve never heard of (where the hell is Angkor Wat?), or are simply too far away for me to afford to visit. Like usual, he wisecracks. In “Finger Back” we listen to him simultaneously reject and accept the pains and pleasures of life: “Hit me like a Yankee/Like the South that never had a slave.” “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die,” he tells us later. It’ll make you chuckle, but it will also make you a little sad. And so Koenig maintains a comedic distance from the material he presents to us, allowing him to maintain his instructional verbiage.

There is a slight shift in musical tendencies on Modern Vampires, but song structures are intact and better than ever. Ghostly choruses permeate through many songs. On “Hudson,” one of two anti-war/imperialism songs, they are most distinct, and become amplified with the inclusion of a death march drum beat. The core of the band—their jumpy, tribal music—is still there, with great effectiveness, but it’s sometimes reprimanded for more personal dynamics. Rostam Batmanglij’s piano gives an air of reflective meditation. Koenig’s parrot-like squawk is in full form. Listen as he reaches an incredibly beautiful apex in the last minute of “Hannah Hunt,” an otherwise quite sparse ditty. Chris Tomson’s drumming, especially on the faster songs, never fails to get our feet moving, confusing as his rhythms can be.

By the closing cut, “Young Lion,” the band reaches an optimistic epiphany, chanting at the listener this line four times: “You take your time, Young Lion.” And so the band has captured some solace and ends the album on an uplifting note. They want us to take our time, not throw it away—wherever that may be.