Wednesday, 23 March 2011

A.V. Club Undercover


As part of the A.V. Club's project, A.V. Club Undercover, musicians have been invited to create their own covers of a series of classic songs, from Blur to the Pixies. This week, Baths performed a lo-fi rendition of LCD Soundsystem's 'All My Friends', with organic percussion in the form of hand-claps and foot-tapping from his friend Dexter. 

The only other artist to take part so far has been Iron & Wine, who covered George Michael. There are now twenty three more songs waiting to be re-jigged, and musicians are given permission to cover them on a first-come-first-serve basis. 

In any case, the project looks to produce some intriguing results, and hopefully some exciting rejuvenations of aging pop songs. I'm keen to hear a stuttering indie musician take on Kanye West's 'Runaway', and Belle & Sebastian's 'Like Dylan in the Movies' will definitely produce some fun results if the band can pull it off. 

Watch out for forthcoming A.V. Club Undercover recordings as they pop up over the coming weeks. All the covers will be posted on the A.V. Club website as soon as they arrive. 

Iron and Wine, "Kiss Each Other Clean"



Whilst I usually try to rise above such stock comparisons of indie musicians, I’d forgive anyone who states that Samuel Beam reminds them of an early Sufjan Stevens.

Both men are known for their banjo-based strains of modern folk music and both have hit the mainstream over the past few years; Sufjan for his over-ambitious one-album-per-state project, Samuel for his Postal Service cover and notorious addition to the Twighlight soundtrack. Both maintain a slightly eerie Christian overtone to their music and both have moved away from their lo-fi roots to a more heavily produced, layered style of music lately.

But Samuel Beam has always favored understatement over Sufjan Stevens’ everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach. So, when Mr. Stevens discovered neon and overdosed on electric drums last year, Samuel Beam simply upped his band members and the percussion section of his arrangements, with distinctive results.

As with Stevens’ ‘Age of Adz’, ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’, the new album from Iron & Wine, marks an evident change of aesthetic without smacking of bandwagon-jumping. Some of the concoctions on the record - such as ’Me and Lazarus’ and ’Monkeys Uptown’ - are slightly jarring, but perhaps this is the price a modern folk musician pays for vying for originality.




A deliciously surprising moment when these innovations pay off is the jazzy brass accompaniment to ‘Big Burned Hand’, which manages to echo the manic genius of  Karl Blau at his best. That said, Beam ruins it slightly with the amount of distortion on the vocals, and the whole thing becomes slightly too much.

This, unfortunately, is the running theme throughout the album: it’s just slightly too much. The path from minimalism to maximalism cannot be rushed, and the rocky road can sometimes include the perilous introduction of vocal distortion where no vocal distortion should venture, and electric guitars where no electric guitars should be.

Beam doesn't always manage to make the eclectic instrumentals gel with his soulful brand of song writing. In a new musician’s shoes, “Kiss Each Other Clean” would be a bold and fascinating achievement, but Beams has his own delicately beautiful compositions to compete with, and the album never lives up to the understated passion of “Birds Stealing Bread” or the profound melancholy of “Fever Dream”.

I hope that this chaotic and intriguing offering from Iron & Wine marks the start of an experimental but well-conceived musical venture for Beams, but I can’t help but admit that the most accomplished songs on the album - ‘Godless Brother in Love’, for example - are the ones that retain Beams’ one-man-and-his-guitar trademark, and that, despite an admirable effort, this is what Iron & Wine do best.

Interview with the Naked and Famous



“I don’t have any friends in Auckland, so I’m allowed to dance when I go out”, David of the Naked and Famous tells me jokingly. The guitarist is sitting across from me in a small cafeteria, talking candidly about his home life in New Zealand.

The Naked & Famous have been rapidly swept into the limelight over the past few months, signing with a renowned U.S. label, releasing two hit singles, being featured in numerous magazines, not to mention winning a prestigious NME award, but David Beadle still retains the charming awkwardness of a small-town student.

When asked about his reception here in England, he seems slightly embarrassed. “We’ve had a lot of good press here”, he admits. “We recently won an award from NME, and we also got featured in the Guardian. I didn’t even know what the Guardian was, until my mum was like, “That’s a huge paper in England”. Auckland is very sheltered; I used to think the BBC just consisted of David Attenborough documentaries.”

In fact, David Attenborough documentaries have had a lot to do with the life he lead before getting involved with the band. Beadle studied Biology and Philosophy at university after deciding that the music industry was too difficult to get into. When I comment on his odd subject choices, he responds with characteristic modesty. “I figured I only had like, eighty years to live”, he tells me, “so I thought I’d try to learn as much about the world as I could in that time”.

Throughout our talk, I get the impression that that he – and the rest of the band – consider themselves quite separated from the mainstream indie circuit. He shrugs off a question I ask him about free downloads and torrents, stating, “I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that; I’ve only been in the industry for a year or so. If I say anything about internet downloads, it’s probably been said already”.

But he does acknowledge that the internet played a big role in his band’s success. “It’s the nature of the internet that things can just take off with no warning. The first single that we released, ‘Young Blood’, immediately got a lot of exposure through the web”.




This is the sort of exposure which thrust the Naked & Famous into a throng of hype-hungry critics, and which, it seems, David Beadle is still getting used to. He is pleasantly informal, making cheeky jokes at intervals in our conversation, and it’s hard to forget that, less than a year ago, he was simply an ordinary student in New Zealand with a passion for music. I’m curious to discover just what sort of musical background he had in his homeland. 

“New Zealand is very sheltered when it comes to international music”, he says matter-of-factly. “No bands ever travel there to play, so live music wasn’t a big part of our lives growing up. There’s this huge annual festival called ‘Big Day Out’, so one day a year we get to see all the bands we like, but other than that there aren’t many gigs going on. We mainly listened to ‘90s alternative records as teens: Tool, Massive Attack, stuff like that”. 

And what about the native music scene in New Zealand? “It’s tiny.” He laughs. “You can pick maybe two New Zealand-based bands from each genre which are fairly well-known among their own crowd. Our musical buddies in New Zealand are ‘Kids of ‘88’. They’re a really fun, talented electro-pop group who we gig with a lot. We actually played with them at ‘Big Day Out’”.

Speaking of ’88, I’m interested to know how the ‘80s have influenced the band’s debut album. It seems apparent that the Naked and Famous have drawn a lot from the ‘80s aesthetic, with their synth-heavy pop songs and abrasive vocals.

“I actually don’t listen to a lot of original ‘80s music, but we all like a lot of the new wave of ‘80s-influenced stuff which has been coming out lately”, David explains to me. “Unfortunately, I think the ‘80s has had the biggest impact on my fashion sense”, he jokes.



“The two singles we released, ‘Young Blood’ and ‘Punching in a Dream’, were very poppy and synth-based, but there are also a lot of darker, heavier moments on the album. A big theme of Passive Me Aggressive You is polarities: some of the lyrics are very dark and some are more poppy, and the same goes for the music”.

This eclecticisim, David tells me, is a happy accident, resulting from the fact that the album was pulled together very quickly from a year’s worth of recordings. Everything, it seems, has happened very suddenly for the Naked and Famous, including a recent record deal with a top U.S.  label. How did they manage it?

 “After ‘Young Blood’ was released, we started getting chased by all these American record labels, but Fiction Records (our current label) really stood out for us. They’ve worked with Crystal Castles and Kate Nash, so they’re really cool guys. Before we signed anything, we went for dinner with some label representatives and just hung out as friends. We all agreed that we wanted to work with them”.

As our discussion draws to a close, I ask David if he has anything to say to the readers of Varsity. He thinks for a second. “Um, study hard? Tell your parents you love them?” And, with a slightly nervous smile, the scruffy, small-town New Zealander returns. “I don’t really have any good advice”, he admits shyly.

In the whirlwind months since the release of ‘Young Blood’, the young musicians that collectively make up the Naked and Famous have been swept halfway across the world on tour, and I’m not surprised that their new rockstar lifestyle hasn’t quite sunken in yet.

Perhaps I’ll ask him again in a few months when things have settled down, but I have a feeling that the guitarist will still be cracking silly jokes and wearing crumpled t-shirts, even if the band’s inspiring musical offerings have made them global superstars by then. 

Saturday, 4 December 2010

An Introduction to... Will Wiesenfeld


A few weeks ago, I wrote a gushing review of Baths' gig at CAMP basement in London, and since then I have been on a cyberactive treasure hunt to find old recordings from the man behind the band. In the course of this search, I have come across two really great projects of his: Geotic and Post-Foetus, both of which are really, really worth a listen.

Geotic 
  
Geotic is an experimental, ambient project which stretches back to the early months of 2008. The several recordings made under this moniker represent a distinctive contribution to Wiesenfeld's repertoire and are a testimony to his diversity as an artist. The music is gently reflective and deeply intimate, but there is something less confessional about this project which separates it from Wiesenfeld's work in Post-Foetus and Baths. Goetic's music can best be described as soundscapes, full of distorted phrases,stirring melodies and atmospheric pauses. It is music by candlelight; a soundtrack to nights awake and the hazy world between consciousness and unconsciousness, and his 2009 realease, 'Hearth', is certainly a source of comfort during these cold winter evenings.

All of Goetic's recording are available to download here

Post-Foetus
In
an interview for SeattleShowGal.com, Wiesenfeld said that his Post-Foetus project was "not necessarily defunct but I think both names are sort of amalgamating into the Baths name". In comparison with the recordings under the Geotic pseudonym, Post-Foetus is instantly recognisable as the work of Will Wiesenfeld. He creates grandiose electronic songs with pop melodies and introspective - often surreal - lyrical twists. Moving away from the spacey realm of ambient electronica, Wiesenfeld turns to a range of classical and folk instruments to produce a truly unique sound. Prime examples of this are his song 'Migration', which loops a phrase of cello music throughout, and 'Soundlight', which launches immediately into a minimalistic off-tune banjo riff before transforming into a grandiose, epic anthem to lost consciousness. 

Post-Foetus' main release, a full-length album titled 'The Fabric', establishes a lyrical and musical narrative as it progresses. The lyrics are darkly passionate and often naively abrupt, particularly when, at the start of 'It's Gonna Rock', Wiesenfeld confesses, "I sometimes wonder why I haven't killed myself already". At the end of 'Soundlight', he pleads, "Let it stay dark, where I dream just like a child. Make it like death, make it final, make it stay black like this for good". They are the product of an unsettled mind, but they also echo the sentiments of courage and endurance which are so movingly chronicled in Baths' debut album, Cerulean.

The not-quite-defunct Post-Foetus is my favorite of Wiesenfeld's main projects, but, as he stated in the interview for SeattleShowGal, Baths does not represent a permanent change in his aesthetic. I think that we can expect a slight departure from the pop melodies of Cerulean and back towards the darker mood and unconventionality of Post-Foetus in his next album. If you don't believe me, listen to his unreleased song Ocean Death, which opens with a pounding succession of droning techno beats and heavily distorted vocals and sees Wiesenfeld softly singing the tripped-out lyric, "I am the ocean". Either way, Post-Foetus is worth listening to, and provides a small glance into where Will Wiesenfeld comes from and where he's going.

You can stream the entire album here.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Why Pitchfork Are Wrong About Joan of Arc


I was genuinely surprised when I discovered Pitchfork's collective stance on Joan of Arc. I say the collective stance, because of the six albums reviewed, the most generous score was 5.3, and that was somewhat oddly attributed to Tim Kinsella's baffling creation, Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain.

"Yup," Marc Hogan writes, with a detectable sigh of resignation, "another record by perennial Chicago snob-rock pissing alley Tim Kinsella(s) and his rotating cast of enablers".

Again, in a scathing review of The Gap, Brent DiCrescenzo writes, "Tim Kinsella and Joan of Arc are back with the minimal, random The Gap. Live in Chicago, 1999 was certainly "abysmal," but that word implies a "bottomless," "fathomless," or "infinite" depth of horrible. How can one proceed further than the infinite? But let's skip all this classification and reification of "horrible" and cut to the chase: Joan of Arc make unlistenable faux-art records".

Putting aside the fact that many have claimed that DiCrescenzo writes unreadable faux-art reviews (cf. Ripfork's countless satirical attacks), his stance is justifiable. I may be one of those blind Kinsella followers that, in Jullianne Shepherd's words, "love him with frothing passion", but I can kind of understand Pitchfork's point of view.

There is no definitive line-up in Joan of Arc, and the project can be better described as a loose collective than a band. Each new recording concept is undoubtedly a product of the abstract mentality of Tim Kinsella, and in his endless thirst for experimentation he often gets it wrong. But in putting Joan of Arc in the firing range for a timely release of pent-up critical vitriol, Pitchfork are sorely mistaken.

Say what you like about Tim Kinsella, no-one can deny that he is seminal. Since Cap'n Jazz was set up by the Kinsella brothers in the late eighties, the band has exerted a profound influence on contemporary indie music. Kinsella's raw, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, his innovative development of math-rock riffs, his antagonism towards conventional melodic patterns - love them or hate them - have influenced many well-known bands and invariably changed the way we approach indie music today. Looking at the abrasive vocals and fiddly  musical phrases in the songs of Manchester-based Hot Club de Paris, it is difficult not to see a nod to Cap'n Jazz's more melodic numbers, such as "Precious" and "Little League". Couple this with Hot Club's (studio) album title, Live at Dead Lake - a distinct reference to Joan of Arc's Live in Chicago (also a studio album) - and it is clear that Kinsella represents, for them, an important predecessor.


In that notoriously gutless establishment which is the contemporary indie scene, Joan of Arc is to my mind one of the bravest feats of the last decade. In "I love a woman (who loves me)", Tim Kinsella confesses that he is "too smart to be a pop star, not smart enough not to be", and his music seems to constantly explore this feeling of creative impasse, searching for a form of expression which is adequate. Kinsella, who aspired to be and perhaps has always conceived himself as a poet, stretches and plays with language to a point where it becomes nonsensical. Musically, equally, he pushes the boundaries of what we describe as a 'song', placing droning white-noise above whispered fragments or getting children to bleat atonally in minimalist recordings.

"Joan of Arc has abandoned the pastiche ethic of past albums to create compositions that flirt with being... songs", William Bowers sneers in his unforgiving review of So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness. But the "pastiche ethic" and this cultural conception of what makes up a "song" go hand in hand. Kinsella martyrs himself in the process of gleaning what works and what doesn't. He is an experimentalist through and through, telling his critics in "I'm Calling Off" that "all my best mistakes have taken years of concentration". The fact is that not all Joan of Arc recordings are songs - some are poems, some are self-indulgent noise - but the records always yield a few precious musical endeavours which manage to attain the right balance.

"Sympathy for the Rolling Stones" finds acute poignancy in minimalist acoustic threads, weaving behind fragmentary poetry and gentle, fuzzing interjections. "If it feels/ Good, do it" pits lilting jazz motifs alongside Kinsella's vocal melodies and some of his most interesting lyrics to date, evoking a world of poorly lit backstreets, run down bars, and world-weary consumerism. "I am over the counter-productive culture", he sings repeatedly, after crooning ironically, "we all know monogamy's just a function of capitalism, and love its consequential construct of culture".

What Kinsella seems to distrust and deliberately avoid is the monolithic cultural consensus of what a musician is and what makes a song. He steers well clear of the conventional verse-chorus-verse blueprint; I think, to the benefit and liberation of the songs he writes. When a form fails to have resonance, good artists change it, develop it, or just scrap it in favour of a better one. Kinsella tells stories, but like a some of the greatest literature they do not always have a traditional beginning-middle-end format. If James Joyce made music, Pitchfork might have given him a 3.5, too.


It's all too easy, though, when someone criticizes Joan of Arc (or Cap'n Jazz, or Make Believe, or indeed any other addition to the Kinsella franchise) to retort,"You just don't 'get it', man", reaffirming the overwhelming suspicion that the front-man of "snob-rock" outfit Joan of Arc is (maybe) just a little bit pretentious. But Kinsella's work is not meant only for the elite few who 'get it' and it is not intended to be alienating and unfathomable.

Perhaps part of the reason for the venom of Pitchfork reviewers is the fact that they are asked to listen to each album from beginning to the end, to treat it like a cohesive narrative, to take the wheat with the chaff, so to speak. "At some point, I stopped listening to it and began tolerating it", writes Pitchfork-critic William Bowers, but the experience Bowers had of painstakingly sitting through the entirety of the record, song-by-song, is not one which speaks the music-listening habits of the internet generation.

Since the revolution of music distribution in the cyber-age, music listening has become less about albums and more about songs, and Joan of Arc's music should be listened to with that in mind. The band is not a fixed group of musicians; the emphasis changes and every album and song is distinctive. Kinsella's recordings can sometimes seem more like concepts than songs, but he is also capable of writing beautiful music. How Memory Works has many of the traits of a brilliant pop album, with memorable hooks and catchy melodies. All fans of Kinsella will have a favourite epoch, album, style, project, or movement of his which for them represents the fruits of his experiments into what works. They will also, undoubtedly, have an epoch of his which for them unambiguously represents what doesn't work. And it is this aspect of divisive experimentation that make his music relevant.

I don't "get" Kinsella. His music is varied, inconsistent, sometimes ugly and sometimes beautiful, like people. Sometimes it fails and sometimes it succeeds, but it always tries. And this is what the critical world doesn't "get" about Kinsella, and it is also why Pitchfork are so, so wrong about Joan of Arc.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

What the Folk Revival Says About Us


Joanna Newsom, in an interview conducted four or so years back, baulked at a question regarding the ‘new folk’ scene. This type of folk is not in the least bit ‘new’, she claimed, citing artists such as Bill Callahan and Vashti Bunyan who have been making this type of folk music for years. Besides, within every categorisation - ‘freak folk’, ‘new folk’, ‘psych-folk’ - there is an inherent arc. This movement that we like to call ‘new folk’, she argued, invariably has its own death built right into it.

But surely even Newsom would find it hard to deny that this folk revival can fairly be termed a movement. She, after all, is one of the people at the centre of it. At the turn of the century, a counter-cultural scene surrounding the folk genre came to seem, somehow, increasingly relevant and appealing for our generation. In the twenty-first century, popular folk music has once again officially hit the mainstream, infiltrating mobile-phone adverts and approaches to fashion. So, why folk and why now? What does a genre which champions the raw, human element of music mean to a generation which defines itself terms of its technological advancement? 

It may seem na├»ve to define a cultural atmosphere by its interest in a genre of music, and perhaps it is. Folk music, however, is and has always been the manifestation of a specific ideology. The ‘folk’ ideology is, roughly, what the etymology of the word implies: giving a voice to the people. What folk is and what it says may be reinterpreted through different epochs and generations – hence our contemporary ‘new’ folk – but it always seeks to represent the unadulterated voice of the people, of communities of human beings.
If the ‘voice of the people’ sounds disconcertingly political, it’s because it is. Folk artists in from the 40s through to the 70s, figures such as Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, wrote lyrics protesting against war and modern materialist culture. Dylan’s songs attempt to evoke a nomadic, aural music culture, reminiscing nostalgically about a time when music was the primary medium of the story-teller.  Joni Mitchell, in “Blue Motel Room”, uses the cold war as a simile to describe a power struggle between two lovers who are “always keeping score”, stating in her hit song “California” that “they won’t give peace a chance - that was just a dream some of us had”.  


This spirit of protest has been revived in contemporary folk music. In a world of such impressive technological advancement and dependency, even the use of acoustic instruments and old-fashioned recording equipment appears to be making a significant point. The concept of the ‘voice of the people’ is manifested in the production of music which uses the organic sounds of the human body, along with all its so-called imperfections. The songs of California-based Shelby Sifers use four- and eight-track recorders, and Sifers makes a point of leaving in the count-downs, coughs and periods of fuzzy silence which are intrinsic to the process of recording and creating music. Modern folk is music which has been subject to hyper-distillation. It is music which has been paired down, and this pairing-down must be understood in the context of a culture which is becoming increasingly built-up; a culture of over-populated cities, high-rise buildings and sensory saturation.

Folk artists of our generation have been misguidedly associated with nomadic culture, with living in tepees, with living in the forest; in brief, with a culture that is fundamentally alienated from the urban culture in which we now exist.  To connect it with these things is to fail to understand that modern folk music is inexorably a product of a post-industrial, technologically prolific society. The hype surrounding artists like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart is a hype which has been predominantly generated through the internet. Music is downloaded, listened to on computers and MP3 players, and subsequently blogged about. In this context, the revival of folk music represents a widespread yearning for the unmistakably human; a return to the fundamental elements of human experiences; the rawness and the risk of live performance. This nostalgia is pin-pointed by Ani Difranco in “Fuel”, when she writes, “People used to make records, as in the record of an event: the event of people making music in a room”. 

Newsom was right when she asserted that to call something a movement is to demarcate a beginning and an end. Folk music represents an ideology which speaks to each generation, but the sentiments it expresses are unmistakably intertwined with the concerns of each age. Our current folk revival touches a nerve so deeply because it speaks to a society which feels over-whelmed, over-saturated and distanced from what makes humanity human: the courage of our convictions, and the courage to be fallible.  


Baths at CAMP Basement



In the fevered months following the release of Baths’ debut album, reviewers have ceaselessly trumpeted the fact that Will Wiesenfeld – the man behind the pseudonym - is young. Young, that is, for a musician who has been so astoundingly prolific. Although Wiesenfeld is still in his early twenties, he has already found a place for himself within the bustling electronic scene on the West Coast, shape-shifting his way through a spectrum of musical guises, and now embarking on his first ever tour this side of the Atlantic. 

Despite being a seasoned writer and performer, the truism sticks: Will Wiesenfeld is, indeed, surprisingly young. After seeing Baths perform live at CAMP this Monday, I was startled by his sheer, childlike exuberance. His on-stage presence emanates youth and excitement, vigorously engineering the playful touches he adds to his songs during performances, chatting amicably with the crowd during song-intervals, and dancing with genuine enthusiasm to the idiosyncratic rhythms of his music.
  
Baths’ set-list at CAMP was a lovingly compiled selection of up-beat tracks from Cerulean, complimented by two fresh compositions. The style of his performance was a testament to Wiesenfeld’s experience on the club circuit; the songs ran together seamlessly, and halfway through the performance of a new song he urged the sound engineer to turn up the volume, sending the packed crowd at the rundown CAMP basement into an attack of furiously off-beat dancing. But Baths’ music is not only meant for the dance-floor. Classically-trained Weisenfeld writes love songs; ones which are lyrically intricate and ones which speak to the marginalised. Before launching into the troubled melodies of “Plea”, he told the crowd that the song was “for any gay guys out there. Just to let you know it’s okay”. 

From the uplifting, choral tones of “Hall” to the hip-hop style “Lovely Bloodflow”, Wiesenfeld avoided some of the gentler songs in his repertoire which might have posed a challenge to the relentless energy of his set. Energy is his trademark, and, as the critics say, Wiesenfeld is young – but seeing his agile handling of the soundboard at CAMP this Monday, it is clear there are great things yet to come.