Hipster drivel: Radiohead running through his head
I was on the prowl for pasties in Oxford's indoor market. The Office of Off-Campus Study will tell you it's the intensive tutorial system that lures Bowdoin students into spending Michaelmas at the world's oldest university. I'll tell you it's the cheese-filled balls of dough whose stench is heady enough to convince tourists to languish in queues for the whiff.
In one such queue, I jostled a gentleman striding by—the height of poor comportment in a country where etiquette is sovereign. “'Scuse me,” I tried to dither out in my best Oxonian-American, before the impish figure in a bowler hat and trench coat knocked the words straight back down my gullet to mingle with esophageal perfection. I, a bumbling foreigner, had backed into Thom Yorke, resident of Oxford and frontman of Radiohead.
My friend Christopher introduced me to Radiohead in tenth grade. I must have said something morose, using words I didn't really know to describe feelings I didn't really feel. He must have wanted to channel my pubescence out of English class rants about Sartrean nausea and into the private realm of Radiohead, lords of sob. In the computer lab we logged into Windows XP. I pulled up 2009-era YouTube. He pulled out 2009-era earphones. “Listen to 'Idioteque.' You'll like it.” I didn't.
I've forgiven myself, and not simply because my music taste in early high school could have been outpaced by an evolutionarily stunted prokaryote. Radiohead challenges, and I didn't like to be challenged. Radiohead also rewards, and I thought the reward was overstated. To be fair, one of the first reviews of the band's seminal 2000 record “Kid A,” which houses “Idioteque,” described hearing the music as “witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on IMAX.”
My thinking is that listening to Radiohead—a band bigger than the band bigger than Jesus—for the first time is like losing your virginity to your best friend in the back of your brother's jalopy on the eve of graduation. Which is to say: uncomfortable, exciting, terrifying, and world-historical. The bleating squalls of “Idioteque” were the sounds of evocative fiction, the kind that provoked the dismissive “hm” I gave Christopher only to guide me to study abroad in Oxford in search of the music's authors.
Radiohead shouldn't exist. They rocketed to fame on the same combustive consumption of American self-loathing that fired Kurt Cobain's shotgun. “What the hell am I doing here?” misbegotten Yorke pleaded in 1992, after Jonny Greenwood's signature squawk sent the band to assured one-hit-wonder-dom with “Creep.” Radiohead's debut “Pablo Honey” is not good, but only because it caters to the lowest common denominator of disaffected asshole-aesthetes. When they became uncompromising in 1995 with “The Bends,” they apotheosized as guitar heroes who could will modern alienation into transcendent celebration. When they heralded technological apocalypse with 1997's “OK Computer,” they became nothing short of prophets.
Where does the best band in the world go after releasing the best album of the decade? They enter a new decade and do it again. I'm too young to remember Y2K, the residual paranoia from Damocles' ballistic missiles, but I imagine “Kid A” disintegrating into the desperation of a billion electrons. Which is what happened to the chimerical album-as-art—diced into compressed data, scrambled into .mp3s, teleported from servers to earbuds, first through Napster and now through Spotify. What if the best album of all time was also the last, arriving on vinyl already vestigial, on compact discs already discarded? “Kid A” issues soothsayings, autopsies, and elegies for the same humanity that died in its creation, at the incipience of the wireless age.
Dylan went electric in 1965, but Radiohead went digital in 2000. I didn't know anything about the band's history, let alone the history of Musical Statements, but I did know that after a night of gallivanting with friends, I had to clamber, boozed and bloodshot, under my sheets to let the descending resolution of “Everything In Its Right Place” wash over me. The notes collapsed into each other while I soared into the barren soundscapes of the title song and “The National Album.” They're cruel but compelling, a disaster and a dawn, stitched from Thom's vocoder wails and flairs of demented brass. The lyrics are dense, unintelligible, and often mundane, like snippets of conversations dredged from data trawlers or the concomitant propaganda that none of this is really happening. But they also suggested a peace beyond the clash of competing cell lines, ineffable and effaced. Loss in the era of hyper-connection wasn't a new idea in 2000, but in 2009 it was innovative to a student trying to piece his world together.
Hence the irony of discovering Radiohead through the jittery opening of “Idioteque” on library computers. The song can't play by command, summoned from the depths of the Internet along with its demons. It unfolds along the infinity of the record's 48 minutes, discernible only in fellowship. For that, “Kid A” is not unhopeful. Its beauty persists if we let it, 15 years later, from the palpitations of surrender of its opening, the cacophony of its uncertainty halfway in, and the ending requiem to “red wine and sleeping pills.”
Because as much as “Kid A” seethes of techno-dystopia, it breathes something else into life. Maybe it's the memory of friends like Christopher, to whom I haven't spoken in years but nevertheless could strike up conversation—even about Sartrean nausea—with affection. Maybe it's the pasties wafting from Oxford's impossible, ancient kitchens. Maybe it's the nights spent in search of love and refuge with the radio on. Maybe it's the humanity embedded in digits by design, the link we have to each other even from our furthest distances. Maybe it's the same hope that Thom kindles at the record's close, whether it turns out merely true or merely comforting: “I will see you in the next life.”
Hipster drivel: Pause the existential crises and play this Ivies mix
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” you whisper into your Solo cup. You won’t be saying this during Logic, but at any other point over our weeklong weekend, the refrain may dance across your lips.
Rites of passage, even vomiting after a beer mile, lend themselves to such thinking. First comes the warm blush of camaraderie (or is that the Natty?), then the icy clench of terror (no, that’s the Natty).
That the best four years of our lives is happening this very instant is the arrogant claim of youth, our burden and our freedom. The question “what if this is it?” gives way to “what better way to spend life than embracing who we are, a cavalcade of preening post-adolescents?”
Crises of unearned nostalgia aside, consider Ivies an analogy for college: suspension in a state of liminal sublime. Dazed and confused, agonized and ecstatic, Apollonian and Dionysian, high and imbibed, we are everything all the time in the threshold of existence. It is either the worst state to capture the moment, or the best.
Whatever we’re lusting after—or fleeing to—let’s do it to music. Instead of curating the songs of the year appropriate for an Ivies playlist, I have culled my picks for the best Ivies playlist of all time.
These songs encapsulate, if not necessarily replicate, the feeling of youth lost and won. Most of them are about drinking, some of them veer towards celebration and others towards resignation, but all them toe the same line as we do: between hedonism and nihilism.
Mark Kozelek will obviously accuse me of selling out to “beer commercial lead guitar shit,” to which I’ll gesture toward my Fender and PBR. We are half formed, maybe, but brimming with life nonetheless.
“The Night of Wine and Roses” by Japandroids
This is the sound of a pregame condensed into four minutes, complete with fireworks, melt-your-face drumming and a raucous chorus. If you can shout “woah oh oh” then you can sing along. It comes from an album called “Celebration Rock” (which contains a song called “For the Love of Ivy,” another contender), so lyrics about “downing drinks in a funnel of friends” and “burning our blunts down the end” feel inevitable and appropriate. But really, it’s the opening lines that carry this song to greatness: “Don’t we have anything to live for? / Well of course we do, but until they come true, we’re drinking.”
“This Heart’s on Fire” by Wolf Parade
Japandroids’ fellow Canadians bring us to the dance floor, and command that we leave everything we’ve got on it. Sometimes, it’s the brute force of a hook that sets our souls aflame, and sometimes it’s the friction of sparking libidos. Learn to live on fire, and we’ll burn together. In between the sweat and the tears, maybe we’ll believe the chorus that proclaims, “it’s getting better all the time.”
“First Night” by The Hold Steady
Really any song from these barfly troubadours could have sufficed. There’s “Party Pit,” about a staggering college student (or maybe I’m projecting) who recounts meeting a girl in the mosh pit and boasts “I’m pretty sure we kissed” but ultimately resolves to “walk around and drink some more.” Or “Stuck Between Stations,” about the horror-guised-as-boredom of youthful drinking culture.But neither can compare to the poignancy of a piano ballad about Holly, who’s “not invincible / In fact she’s in the hospital,” and both “inconsolable” and “uncontrollable,” all because “we can’t get as high as we got...on that first night.” We’ll play it as we contemplate our own decay after dusk, cigarettes in our hands.
“The City” by The Dismemberment Plan
Five years before Kelly Clarkson, Travis Morrison shouted “since you been gone” from his rooftop and into the empty streets of some desperate city. “You” probably refers to a partner, but it may as well be Morrison, trying to figure it all out, but never quite feeling himself in his own skin. The scene he describes from his haunted perch sounds like the post-Ivies devastation of campus: barren and silent, even as “something seems to happen somewhere else.” After a night of recklessness or restlessness, we might also turn inward for refuge. And, like Morrison, we’ll be “not unsympathetic” to those of us who’ve left the city, striking out for elsewhere. It’s the collapsing of choice and necessity, a bittersweet refrain as we close the door and exit this threshold of our lives: “all I ever say now is goodbye.”
Hipster drivel: Stevens redeems singer-songwriters, his mother
I have a confession, gentle reader, and I hope the same grace which brings me to admit my sin also inspires you to forgive it. When last we met, I declared the impossibility of the singer-songwriter in 2015. Sincerity is dead, I thought, taking with it our affable acoustic mensches. I spoke too soon. (Even tastemakers are mortal.)
I underestimated a certain musician from Detroit with a penchant for geographic grandiosity. If Father John Misty is the crucifixion of songwriting, then Sufjan Stevens is the resurrection.To be fair, Stevens is an unlikely martyr. The year 2005 belonged to the baroque absurdity of his record “Illinois,” with its soaring choruses and site-specific splendor. What business does Stevens have in 2015, being five years removed from his last LP (unless you count the disturbing amount of Christmas music he has recorded, which sounded more like the data-driven apocalypse than a flurry of hushed hymnals)? After all the left turns his career has taken, Stevens goes the one unexpected route remaining with “Carrie & Lowell”: making a straightforward folk album.
No, “Carrie & Lowell” is not the fifty-first state. Stevens doesn’t humanize the midwest’s most famous serial killer, nor does he harmonize with gospel choirs in praise of God. These eleven songs are not sweeping declarations of anything, really, except the muted intimacy of childhood. The record is named for Stevens’ mother and stepfather, two parents trying to hold together a family as it disintegrates in the midst of disease and drug addiction. It is as if “Casimir Pulaski Day,” the heart-wrenching opus on “Illinois” about an ambiguously gendered subject’s relationship to faith while dying of leukemia (and doubling as a history lesson in military holidays), was not entirely fiction. On “Carrie & Lowell,” Stevens doesn’t have to weave grand narrative arcs with oblique metaphors in order to convey the desperation of sickness and of love—the pain was inside him all along.
Carrie’s ghost haunts every song on the album. She died in 2012, but Stevens recounts that she had abandoned him long before that, whether she forgets about her toddler at a Blockbuster or takes him on a car ride and drug trip to Oregon. As much as he may wish it, Stevens cannot escape the memory of his mother, whom he both pines for and despises.
“I don’t know where to begin,” he admits on “Death with Dignity,” awash in memories too painful to confront head on. But he attempts a start, regardless: forgiveness.
Yet what happens when death robs us of the chance to forgive? On “All of Me Wants All of You,” Stevens wonders, “shall we beat this or celebrate it,” wondering if it’s better for his mother’s illnesses to end with death or if she should keep fighting. The backdrop, of course, is their troubled relationship—more time to live means more time to be let down as much as it does more time to earn redemption. “I’m just a ghost you walk right through,” he continues, conflating himself with his mother’s apparition and the ephemera of innocence. “Now all of me thinks less of you,” he confesses. But that doesn’t break the bonds of familial love as he sings, “all of me wants all of you.”
The most important lesson we learn from our parents isn’t something they can teach us. It happens slowly, the decay of their superhero status, though Stevens realized it quicker than most. Witnessing the unbearable humanness of mothers—imperfection, ambiguity, mortality—devastates us, threatening even our own eternity. Stevens employs his historic falsetto to make this point: “we’re all gonna die,” and even now “in a manner of speaking” we’re already dead. Our parents’ mortality is our own, even if their mistakes are not.
I’m not sure “Carrie & Lowell” is the best record in Stevens’ discography, but it is the best record of the year. With it, he does more than redeem the singer-songwriter—he redeems his mother, turning it into the redemption of the human race.
Loss stems from love, Stevens reminds us—even as he wishes he could tear his eyes and his arms out to numb his senses. He urges, “Everything I see returns to you somehow,” mother, center of the universe, black hole, “should I tear my heart out now?” And when fireworks blossom on the Fourth of July, a rainbow salute to passing, may we remember what it means to love and be loved.
Hipster drivel: Josh Tillman and the evolution of the singer-songwriter
There are many ways to be an asshole with an acoustic guitar: cover “Wonderwall,” for example, or play Dave Matthews. The democratization of music consumption (once, you had to be nobility to hear Mozart) mirrors, I think, the decline of earnest musical talent (see: your Spotify Free usage and the number of milquetoast Coldplay wannabees dotting your Facebook newsfeed). The advent of audio recording meant you no longer had to read sheet music in order to experience Gilbert and Sullivan—but can we call this a happy development if it culminates in Iggy Azalea?
The asshole-with-guitar rarely means to be such a thing. He picked up the instrument either to accommodate for his lack of personality or to lyricize sentiments best left in his diary, yet we heap on him derision rather than pity. Why? Because the storied history of the singer-songwriter progresses from sincere to sweet to sentimental to saccharine. Singer-songwriter as a quote-unquote genre has already had its wunderkind beat poet protestor (Bob Dylan), its self-loathing and conflicted sneerer (also Dylan), its Brill Building cinematic sell-out (Burt Bacharach), its soft-rock schmaltz establishment crooner (James Taylor), its alcoholic roustabout raconteur (Tom Waits), its whimsical psychedelic druggie (Harry Nilsson), and its fuck-it-I’ll-play-harpsichord virtuoso (Van Dyke Parks). Which is all to say: it’s tough being a white guy in show biz these days. A six-string and a broken heart don’t get you as far as they once did.
Maybe the singer-songwriter of today has been reduced to your annoying acoustic first-year floormate, but it wasn’t always so. Let’s remember that before he turned us all into hanky-soaked nostalgists with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” Randy Newman was an acerbic pianist. Instead of sentiment, he laced his songs with scathing satire. His song “Rednecks,” for instance, sends up the trope of the titular southerners who “can’t tell [their] ass from a hole in ground” while damning white northerners for their hypocrisy and complicity in systemic racism. Far from the middle-of-the-road emoting of Ed Sheeran, Hozier, and your cousin whose cover of “Fearless” was retweeted by Taylor Swift, Randy Newman had edge. Who will deliver us from Sam Smith in 2015?
Enter Josh Tillman, alias Father John Misty, asshole-with-guitar, but not the kind who only knows the chorus to “Wagon Wheel.” Under an abbreviated name, he used to perform mopey folk music, the kind of “sensitive lumberjack” tunes that made Bon Iver famous. After a stint with Fleet Foxes, a band that injected emotional highs into listeners straight through a catheter of pastoralism and four-part harmony, he abandoned white-male melancholia. I remember his Facebook post from the Fleet Foxes page declaring, “into the gaping maw of obscurity I go.”
You know what they say: if you can’t beat ’em, caricature ’em. Tillman’s new project, Father John Misty, is the Adult Swim version of Bon Iver, a Newman-esque satire of the possibility of a singer-songwriter in 2015. He even has his own (anti-)origin story: depressed dude fails at music industry, takes psychedelics, internalizes life’s nihilism, and transforms into shamanic and cynical asshole-with-guitar who knows he’s the asshole-with-guitar. Tillman is the kind of asshole who would laugh at the kid trying to lead the entire camp in a sing-a-long of “Skinny Love,” and then sleep with his mother. Bon Iver sings about losing love and innocence alike; Tillman thinks you can recapture the former with his specialty perfume called “‘Innocence’ by Misty” (it goes for $75.00 on his website).
The funniest part of the Father John Misty joke, then, isn’t the absurdity of a singer-songwriter releasing an album of love songs in 2015—although “I Love You, Honeybear” is full of self-referential asides suggesting Tillman is as bored with singer-songwriters as the rest of us. No, the punch line is that the Father John shaman character isn’t really a character at all. Tillman really is just that bitter, scathing, outrageous, hilarious, and at times, brilliant. He was faking it while drumming for Fleet Foxes, champions of sincerity. Maybe it’s the difference between Tinseltown and Medford, Wisconsin, but Tillman’s only himself when he lets his asshole-with-guitar run free.
“I Love You, Honeybear” plays with performance. The title is tongue in cheek, but only because Tillman knows what it’s like to have been chewed up and spit back out, both by love and by commercial failure. “Save me white Jesus,” he sings over canned laughter on “Bored In The USA,” clearly expecting no salvation from either the Lord or the Boss. Tillman even leaked a version of his album early, with his voice and instrumentation compressed into Super Mario Bros.-style blockiness.
Despite such ironic affectations, there’s a brutal honesty to these songs, which document Tillman’s neuroses, sins, and lexicon. Addressing his honeybear:“I’ve brought my mother’s depression / You’ve got your father’s scorn and a wayward aunt’s schizophrenia.” Addressing a judgmental hookup who “hoovers all [his] drugs”: “She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes / And the malaprops makes me want to fucking scream.” The album is an account of how he met his wife, and surely Tillman makes a loving if troubled husband but the misogynistic womanizer in him is never wholly disowned. That’s the point, though. Tillman is through with hiding, even his nastiest characteristics.
Father John Misty is too clever for his own good—that sharp tongue is bound to puncture his cheek—but he never backs away from who he is, which is a giant asshole with a mariachi guitar. He’s a jerk whose honesty is almost lovable. By serenading us with snark couched in sentiment wrapped up in equal parts schmaltz and cynicism, he delivers this truth to a dying industry: sometimes, it takes sarcasm to be sincere.
Hipster drivel: A Swans concert: exploring auditory assault
Swans are animals which symbolize romantic love because when you put two of them together, their necks almost resemble a heart. In addition, I’m told they mate for life, which might also have something to do with it. They should not be confused with Swans, which is a band whose music bores its way into your soul only to leave an abyss that listens back. This is a very important distinction.
When I heard the latter was coming to Portland, I asked my friends if they wanted to go see Swans with me. “The bird?” asked Garrett Casey ’15. “The Frisbee player?” chuckled Sam Miller ’15. “No,” I said, “the band.” See above.
“Sure,” said Leo Shaw ’15, who doesn’t listen to anything released after 1988, the year Sonic Youth made “Daydream Nation” and won music. “Do we need to get tickets?” Hugh Ratcliffe ’15 wondered aloud, boyish charm dancing across his face.
“I don’t think so,” I replied, figuring that Swans was one of those bands driveling hipsters claim to like but never really follow through on seeing live, or, you know, listening to. It is difficult listening for some people, after all.
“For some people,” I guffawed, before putting in headphones. “What’s that?” Peter Nauffts ’15 said. “What’s that?” I said, gesturing to the headphones. “What’s that?” Thom Yorke said, because that is a lyric to the Radiohead song I was intellectualizing at the moment.
Several months passed until the night of the concert, and then Leo and I clambered into Hugh’s car.
“Let’s get some earplugs,” Hugh said. I intuited he was referring to Swans’ tendency to make their audience’s ears bleed during live shows. “I got us covered,” I said, brandishing the box of $4.95 earplugs I had purchased for this very occasion. “They reduce noise by up to 33 decibels!”
On the way to Portland, Hugh and Leo were involved in a heated conversation regarding the kind of music Swans makes. “It’s like if Sigur Ros had a baby with doom metal,” Hugh posited. “Not really doom metal,” countered Leo. “Noise rock?” ventured Hugh. “Experimental,” shrugged Leo.
I had been busy laughing at the comedy of existence in the backseat, but even if I were one to participate in boxing Swans into a corner, I wouldn’t have said “haven’t you philistines heard of No Wave?” because I am only that kind of asshole in print.
When we arrived at the venue, we ditched our coats and I ran into my friend Shaun. “I really want my ears to bleed tonight,” said Shaun. I laughed in a manner which I hope conveyed the sentiment “me too” while I strategically tucked my box of earplugs further into my pocket. Shaun is more hardcore than I am.
Back up by the stage, Leo and Hugh were ordering beers. They are both 22. I am 21, so fortunately all three of us could purchase alcohol legally and consume it safely. “Unlike some people,” I muttered. “What’s that?” Hugh said. “What’s that?” I said, gesturing to my earplugs.We barely had to stand around talking awkwardly for five minutes when Michael Gira came onstage. Michael Gira is sixty years old but I can’t imagine him being a grandfather. For one thing, he has long oily hair. For another thing, he is the frontman of Swans.
For those of you who don’t know, Swans’ live act is described by Ticketmaster user Lightninger as “a metaphysical assault.” “Uh-oh,” I said, digging my earplugs in a little deeper.
Thus commenced two hours and 15 minutes of punishing and soul-baring experimental-noise-rock-meets-Sigur-Ros. I don’t know how many songs they played, though it’s possible the number is as low as five. Half-hour epics tend to sprawl out.
In celebration of life’s absurdity, the deafening barrage of guitars, glockenspiels and trombones shook confetti, that vestige of simpler times, from the venue’s rafters.
At the end of a song, a crowd member dead-panned, “Hey, that was pretty good,” as if to say, “There are no atheists at a Swans concert.” Michael Gira ignored him. The band promptly launched into a suite whose sole intelligible lyric was “We’re living in a wonderland.”
As Swans deconstructed every conceivable performance trope and built from the ashes of rock ‘n’ roll a new idol of burning, aqueous passion, I thought, for a brief but beautiful second, that something mattered.
The final chord, a death knell, sounded. I awoke from my stupor. “Iron and Wine’s sound really did a 180,” I said, winking and pointing at one of Swans’ hirsute drummers. “Unnngh,” Leo said, drained. “What’s that?” Hugh said, his boyish charm aged by decades.
Editor’s note: Garrett Casey ’15, Sam Miller ’15 and Leo Shaw ’15 are Orient staff members.
Hipster drivel: Viet Cong carries on Ian Curtis’ legacy
One of life’s great mysteries, ranking above the existence of Bigfoot but below Wallace Stevens’ morbid economy of beauty, remains the fact that two of the best bands in the world were, in fact, largely the same band.
On May 18, 1980, after viewing Werner Herzog’s “Stoszek,” Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis hung himself while listening to Iggy Pop. His death marked the demise of the band, whose despairing lyrics and rhythmic guitar work defined where music was headed in the post-punk era of the late 1970s. From Joy Division’s ashes rose New Order, a pioneer of electronic dance music whose sound married guitars and synthesizers to create instant club hits.
Stephen Morris, Bernard Sumner, and Peter Hook of the proto-goth Joy Division, who sang such dour lines as “love will tear us apart,” metamorphosed into the euphoric pill poppers whose “Bizarre Love Triangle” soundtracked Manchester, England raves. In short, a mere handful of humans is responsible for populating much of music’s evolutionary tree.
Despite committing suicide a quarter of a century ago, Curtis has survived like few other musicians who are not Nick Drake and did not die at 27. Journalists evoke his name every time they use the phrase “angular guitars,” and singers of the last decade have channeled his spirit with ubiquitous monotone, baritone deliveries.
Allow me an example. A friend once described a music writer who brandished a Ouija board at Paul Banks, frontman of New York City post-punk revivalists Interpol, as if Banks had some connection to Curtis’ spirit.
The perfection of Interpol’s 2001 debut, “Turn On the Bright Lights,” indeed suggests some supernatural soul-swapping. My theory is that when Kanye West rhymed “séance” with “parents” in 2010, he was referencing our modern gothic necromancy. Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, The National—Ian Curtis has had no shortage of resurrections.
In last month’s debut from Viet Cong, we have a rightful heir to the ancestor as well as the descendants. Their razor-sharp arrangements, claustrophobic grooves, and yes, angular guitars, are indebted to Interpol as much as Joy Division. So is it 2001? Or 1979? Have we reached the era of post-modern post-punk?
Fortunately, Viet Cong is no mere copy of a copy of a copy. While the band revels in DeLillian despair, its angst is more xenial than Xeroxed. If anything, its guiding light is Ezra Pound’s maxim, “make it new.” “This incessant march of progress,” singer Matt Flegel observes, “can guarantee our success,” so he relinquishes the ball-and-chain of originality for the liberation of kaleidoscopic irony.
If My Bloody Valentine—the last innovator of guitar rock—is Gertrude Stein, then Viet Cong is T.S. Eliot, curator of culture-as-collage.And what a wasteland this self-titled debut is! In punishing monochrome, Viet Cong bend their influences into labyrinthine melodies with reverence, not reference. Joy Division, Radiohead, Interpol, and Wolf Parade are all subsumed into the record’s oblique guitar licks and charging momentum.
Above the other influences, however, hangs Women, one of the great underrated rock bands to come out of Calgary, Canada. Viet Cong formed out of the dregs of that band’s onstage implosion in 2010 and the subsequent death of frontman Christopher Reimer. Rather than undergoing a radical surgery to graft dance beats onto guitars à la New Order, however,Viet Cong has convalesced with a renewed sense of purpose.
Purpose, of course, is relative. If this record has a theme, it might be nihilism. With song titles like “Pointless Experience” and “Death,” Viet Cong does not seem interested in either earthly or transcendent redemption. On the former, Flegel drones, “if we’re lucky, we’ll get old and die,” at once a poignant remembrance of a lost bandmate and an ironic gesture towards that Stevensian economy of beauty.
The white noise intro to “March of Progress,” a grinding tumble reminiscent of “Kid A,” culminates in the question, “what is the difference between love and hate?” Flegel intones it bored, not caring about the answer. But the question matters, and it always has, whether you’re a modernist or a musician.
Hipster drivel: Sleater-Kinney more than just riot grrrls
To call Sleater-Kinney the best rock band of the last two decades is to miss the point. It's an argument that has stormed across the internet like, well, a Sleater-Kinney song ever since the trio announced its return a few months ago after a ten-year hiatus.
But I suspect Corin, Carrie and Janet don't give a damn what we think about them. “No Cities To Love,” a searing record of tight melodies and gripping charisma, asks many questions, but “do you still love us?” is not one of them. “What if your mom could kick your ass?” however, certainly is.
Indeed, these riot grrrls are now riot women. They've come a long way since the early ’90s DIY punk scene at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wa.
Carrie Brownstein's fame as curator of hipster hodge-podge “Portlandia” has eclipsed her fame as snarling guitarist in Sleater-Kinney—though you wouldn't know it from “No Cities To Love.” It's less a reunion album than a reignition record. There's no painful attempt to recreate the sublime here. It turns out lightning can strike the same place twice. Or, in this band's case, eight times.
We first caught a glimpse of the album back in November, when the single “Bury Our Friends” announced Sleater-Kinney's take-no-prisoners return. The song is a piece of pop mastership, anchored by Weiss' thunderous drumming, and driven to sing-along heights by Tucker's wild-eyed yawp and the band's signature dueling guitars.
It was a reminder of what made them so good in the first place—an unpretentious dedication to craft that never sacrificed fury for listenability. Sleater-Kinney is the rare band that pulls off pissed and pop.What's all the more impressive is the trio's command of tone. Tucker sings with all the urgency of a wildfire, yet the flames never consume these songs' emotional subtlety. The fuzz-rock opener “Price Tag,” for instance, evokes the concept of social cost for cheap consumer goods, as told through the eyes of single mothers stocking shelves at a department store.
The irony, of course, is that this kick in the bourgeois derrière is even more relevant now than when Sleater-Kinney soundtracked the anti-globalization debate two decades ago. “I was lured by the cost,” Tucker admits of marked-down sale items, a godsend for those who live paycheck-to-paycheck. But really, “we never checked the price tag,” since there is so much—child labor, dangerous chemicals, carbon pollution—unaccounted for. Call it econ 101, or call it the way Sleater-Kinney open an album, capturing consumer guilt with poise.
Of course, this whole project is kind of meta. On “Surface Envy,” Tucker sings, bordering on platitude, that “we win, we lose, but only together do we break the rules.” Later on, she rhymes that with “make the rules.” We could take this as something of a manifesto. Sleater-Kinney have the trappings of a great punk band with distorted guitars, leftist politics, and shred-your-throat vocals. Yet they've also become everything a punk band is not supposed to be—idolized.
What happens when an anti-authoritarian band itself becomes an authority? Sleater-Kinney, after all, might be described as our version of the Sex Pistols—brash and iconoclastic, if infinitely more talented. They themselves are certainly not asking to be revered, as “No Anthem” makes clear. That is why the “best rock band” argument is absurd.
Unquestionably, Sleater-Kinney deserve to be added to the pantheon of musical divinity, not because they are the token feminist punk band, but because they are so much more. Instead of comparing legacies like phalluses, their fate is to “invent [their] own kind of obscurity,” one in which the music speaks for itself.
Hipster drivel: What is love? Sticky, messy and complicated—just ask Van Etten
I first fell in love when I was 16 and immediately regretted it. Love was sticky and smelled slightly off. It consisted of long, oozing tendrils wrapping themselves around my heart and yanking at inopportune moments. I felt both weightless and claustrophobic in it, buoyed and breathless in love's thick embrace. To fall in love, I discovered, is to be suspended in something resembling my aunt's endearing attempts at bread pudding (a dish, no less, savored by my then girlfriend). By the time I was 17, I realized how thoroughly I had fallen in when I tried to extricate myself from love's mess. Evidently, love, again like my aunt's bread pudding, goes bad. It's even stickier and holds on ever tighter, when it does.
Sharon Van Etten knows this. She has lived this, and she has sung about it. Nowhere are her thoughts more refined, nor her feelings more concentrated, than on her masterful fourth album “Are We There.” It is a sonic tour de force of the daily triumphs and trials of love, a testament to the endurance and occasional idiocy of the human spirit, as well as to the healing powers of the heart. The record does not ask love's burning questions so much as slam them—as stark and question mark-less as its title—on the altar for sacrifice: is there an elegant way for a heart to break, a graceful falling out of love?
Van Etten has no answers, but in crafting the record she makes the case for something which I have suspected since I was 16 and accidentally belonged to another person. Our turns of phrase are in need of updating—we don't fall in love, so much as stumble into it.
Perhaps it's because our emotional wiring dangles like stubborn shoe laces, perhaps it's because because we're rarely as honest with ourselves as we'd like to think, but love is what happens when we're busy making other plans. Van Etten sings with all the intensity this cruel irony—that our most intimate feelings might only be intelligible in retrospect—inspires. With “Afraid of Nothing,” the album opens with the swirling haze of an arpeggiated guitar grounded by a gentle, melancholic piano line. The effect is the passage of time, as if soundtracking the car on the cover forever whisking by suburban neighborhoods. Van Etten stares out the window, searching for something unseen ahead. She knows she won't find it: “I can't wait 'til we're afraid of nothing.” Waiting for love's confirmation is the wait of a lifetime. Love requires risk and leaps of faith. It is urgent, and will not abide by “a lame 'wait shit out,'” as she chides the song's second person. Love is fickle. It does not come with a eureka.
“Are We There” is not a break up record, though it could function as one. It is more an album about thresholds, the spaces in between lovers, getting mired in the mess. On the show-stopping “Your Love is Killing Me,” Van Etten, in one of the finest vocal performances of the decade, captures the vulnerability of hearts that live outside our chests. She needs the language of violence in order to describe the inner turmoil of a long-distance relationship: “break my legs so I won't run to you” and “stab my eyes so I can't see,” but “steal my soul so I am one with you.” It's easy to forget that the person in charge of your heart is a real human being. The physical force of Van Etten's performance—and the message to “taste blood, everybody needs to feel”—helps to remind us that we are just flesh, even our ex-lovers.
The confusion comes to a fore on “I Love You But I'm Lost.” Even the assuredness of a feeling in the present doesn't guarantee it's longevity. We're all changing (or do we call it growing?) and disappointment is inevitable: “to know somebody in and out, it's a real challenge.”
How accurate are our representations of each other, and can love endure the transitions from one picture of a person to the next? “You know me well,” she half commands on the next song, but it isn't enough to fill the brick house of a relationship, built without the sides. We might never actually know each other fully, but going through hell together at least offers familiarity. Whether that's enough, to conceive of the significant other with emphasis on the “significant” and downplaying the “other,” is debatable, but it's a start. Relationships work through willing partners, and Van Etten displays such determined compassion as she sings “I will reach you.”
“Are We There” is a difficult album to listen to because it grabs your attention by punching you in the gut. It's hard to relegate it to the background, because it makes whatever you are doing—cooking, doing homework, lounging around on the internet—seem insignificant to the torment of heartbreak. Raw and rich, “Are We There” rewards multiple listens, as it unfolds to the haunting, gravelly quavers of Van Etten's voice. Listening to it is a little bit like falling in love for the first time, stickiness and all.
Hipster drivel: Run the Jewels lash out on incendiary sequel
Killer Mike and El-P are angry. I mean pissed. I mean off-the-chain furious, goddammit, and no one escapes their wrath—pimpin’ politicians, fuckboys and hucksters, coke-addled hustlers, corporate personhood, brutalized neighborhoods, for-profit prisons and profitless sit-ins. And when they take aim, you better run them jewels fast.
Last year, these two titans of underground rap joined up for the explosive, self-titled mixtape “Run the Jewels,” and now they’ve returned for the sizzling, scintillating, take-no-prisoners “Run the Jewels 2.”
It’s more than a sequel, it’s a statement: Mike and El are hustling, and we’re buying. They flow through nearly 40 minutes of sheer dragon-spew, igniting everything in their path, and in the wake of the flames they dance the Charleston.
Maybe the person most on the duo’s radar is Kanye West, whose big mouth and Daft Punk production overshadowed the industrial edge of the duo’s debut. But even the genius of “Yeezus” looks like derivative drivel, which El acknowledges on “Jeopardy.”
“I’ve never been much of shit, by most measurements don’t exist,” he raps, nodding to his underground status. “On the radar a little blip in the shadow of motherships, been smothered and brashly muffled by hucksters of global spin.”
Whether he’s referring to Yeezy, Walmart or the military-industrial complex, El knows his secret weapon for taking down the system is his anonymity. His beats influenced Kanye circa “808s & Heartbreak” and could probably neutralize an army, but he prefers to remain unknown: “I been here making raw shit and never asked to be applauded.”
Mike is not so conciliatory. He steals the thorny crown right off “Yeezus,” toppling idols in the process. “You know your favorite rapper ain’t shit, and me, I might be,” he bellows. “The closest representation of God you might see...prevail through Hell, so Satan get thee behind me.”
Slinging dope and poaching on the street, Mike knows he’s no role model (“the villains is here, no Jesuses here”), but if he’s bound to burn, might as well make the Devil pay: “The gates of hell are pugnaciously pacing, waiting, I give a fuck if I’m late, tell Satan be patient.” We’re all sinners in the hands of an angry Mike, and the tithe never looked so affordable.
Mission statement loud and clear, Run the Jewels bulldoze the rest of their competition. The brain-bashing thump of “Blockbuster Night Part 1” makes it the most likely to soundtrack some debauched warehouse orgy, while “Lie, Cheat, Steal” gives us a gym-tan-laundry routine for the next session of Congress.
Run the Jewels are at their best when they razor their way through the tragedy of life on the street and find humor in its absurdity. Forget, for a moment, that they raised $40,000 to remix “Run the Jewels 2” solely using cat noises. They send up rap’s casual misogyny in “Love Again (Akinyele Back)” when Mike and Gangsta Boo of Three 6 Mafia exchange boasts about fellatio and cunnilingus.
The track, however, that shows Run the Jewels at their angriest—and their funniest—is the masterfully titled “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck).” Over the constant refrain of“run them jewels fast,” Mike conjures a storm of black power imagery, calling on mandatory minimum inmates to start a prison riot.
His agony is palpable in lines like “We killin’ ’em for freedom ’cuz they tortured us for boredom, and even if the good ones die, fuck it, the Lord’ll sort ’em.”
El proceeds to gross us out with his “vagina whispering” and “conjugal visiting” before Mike brings it back to solitary confinement and fathers ripped from their families only to vow vengeance on the system that put them there. The song even pulls Zack de la Rocha out of rap-metal obscurity so he can rat-tat-tat the triple entendre “Philip AK Dickin’ you.”
“Run the Jewels 2” is what happens when two rappers at the top of their game get angry and make a record. It’s both brutal and hilarious, offering release from, and access to, the overwhelming reality of systemic racism in the U.S. Mike and El aren’t ones to pass up a chance to fight, and they’ve made an album that never backs down.
Hipster drivel: With Taylor Swift, it's complicated
Before Vampire Weekend proved it was more than an Ivy League novelty, before Frank Ocean crooned his way into our bedsheets, before LCD Soundsystem bade farewell to a generation of dance-punk converts, before Nicki Minaj silenced the haters with her spitfire feature on “Monster,” and before Mark Kozelek told the War on Drugs to suck his cock, I listened to Taylor Swift.
Once, an age ago, I was a romantic. You may not know this about me. There might be a positive correlation between acne and sentimentality, or pubescence and feelings, or maybe this teenager was just born to pine.
My stoic demeanor and baggy shirt hid an exploding heart (the metaphor, not the band). I once delivered roses to a girl at the ballet. When I couldn't bear the weight of the heartbreak that my adolescence invited, I'd close the door to my self-hate-nest, cozy up to a teddy bear, and break out my Tay Sway. I loved “Fearless.”
I think Swift is very good at what she does. Even as a moody male teen I identified with her love-lorn characters. Her transition from bright-eyed, tug-at-your-heart-strings acoustic classics to four-on-the-floor pop hits felt inevitable, but she has done it with elegance.
That is why I would not call her a guilty pleasure—why should we be ashamed of enjoying good craft? But sadly, the magic has run out. If Taylor Swift's new album “1989,” is guilty of something, it's of never even entering the orbit of guilty pleasure.
I stopped listening to Taylor Swift after making my blood pact with hipsterdom. In fact, I stopped listening to female artists at all. In switching off the car stereo, I not only turned away from the trite lyrics and predictable chord progressions of the Top 40, but also fled from a land where queens reigned supreme. The Best New Music section of Pitchfork was filled with edgy acts—though most were all-male outfits.
Convincing myself that I only liked to listen to lead singers who were male, I flirted with, and fell for, the homoeroticism of Franz Ferdinand.
I bought my first pair of skinny jeans, donning a sultry look that put the “sexual” in “metrosexual” (no high-end accoutrement could afford me the prefix) and channeled my teenage heartbreak into the aesthetic of a wounded but snobbish hunk.
I found romance not in Taylor Swift's high school dramas, but in Arcade Fire's tragic tales of love and woe and in the Civil War shanties of the Decemberists.
At the turn of the decade, the phallocentricity of the Great Albums canon makes it read like the Great Books canon. I mean this almost literally, with Sufjan Steven's biblical history lessons and the romantic erudition of Bon Iver.
Where are the women in the “Best Of” lists? The collapse of punk in the early 1990s gave birth to an aggressive female style, as bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney upended essentialist notions of femininity. Of the top thirty albums of the 1990s, according to Pitchfork, only one can claim the appellation “feminist”: Liz Phair's “Exile in Guyville.” (The only other female artist in the top thirty is Bjork, though a handful of the bands listed have female members.)
The riot grrrl movement of the 1990s was at the margins of marginalized music. Compare the riot grrrl to the trope of the sensitive male singer-songwriter of today. With his aching falsetto, skin-tight denim, and wistful coo, he approaches the classical feminine with more commercial success and cultural caché than the riot grrrls. At what point does masculine sensitivity edge out female versatility?
This is just to say that there are women who compose fearless pop music who should not be eclipsed by the bland pop affect Taylor Swift adopts on “1989.”
Mary Timony, best known for her work in Helium in the mid-90s, comes to mind. The snotty power-pop of the debut of her new band, Ex Hex, is memorable without resorting to the generic yawns rampant in “1989.”
Ex Hex may contribute nothing new to a long tradition of garage rock, but to hear a trio of women perfecting the art of rocking the fuck out with insta-classic riffs is a sonic windfall.Speaking of rocking the fuck out, Sleater-Kinney announced its return in style with its first new song in nearly a decade. “Bury Our Friends” is a three-minute whirlwind of slashing guitars during which Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein exchange yelps as sharp as the cuts of a rapier. Their advice: “Exhume our idols, bury our friends!” Maybe it's time we put down the Taylor Swift and dusted off our Bikini Kill. Let's dig up a better sort of feminist. Resurrect the riot grrrl.
Hipster drivel: A weekend to revolutionize local music scene
It's mid-October and Bowdoin students have found themselves—inexplicably, astonishingly and possibly for the very first time—in the unenviable position of prioritizing which concert venue they'd like to patronize on a Friday night. I mean patronize in one sense of the word when I refer to Port City Music Hall and in the other sense when I refer to Colby College.
On Friday evening, and no doubt into witching-hour Saturday, both establishments will be alit with the flame only live music can bring. This flame will be punctuated only by the flitting of bearded Portlanders doing their best CBB cat impersonations, and college students acting the part of debonair Portlanders. Neither will succeed, though that hardly matters.
Never underestimate the spiritual healing power of a concert. Rejoice, driveling hipsters of Bowdoin: a musical renaissance is upon us.
I refer, of course, to We Were Promised Jetpacks’ lamentably pedestrian arrival in Portland and Chance the Rapper's spontaneous decision to tour schools already disappointed by Macklemore. For a city and a college that has booked, in recent memory, Skrillex and Wiz Khalifa, this is indeed a renaissance.
I leave it up to my readers to decide which brand of diatonic delivery—Scottish braying or frenetic free association—best satisfies their nocturnal needs, though I can offer some advice for students looking to up their indie cred.
At Port City, order a local brew (or, if underaged, a tonic water, no ice) and whisper a bit too loudly to the Portlanders around you that the only reason you're here is to see the opener, The Twilight Sad. Bonus points if you can work in a joke about Scottish independence, or heckle them with Frightened Rabbit lyrics. At Colby, simply look dour and unapproachable, with a scowl that states—not screams—“I go to Bowdoin.”
Not that we have to nurse our superiority complex for long. After all, Saturday night brings noisy surf-rock poster boy Wavves and his punkish super soaker sound to Morrell Lounge. Time will tell how kindly Maine autumn and 2014 treats his music, though I remain cautiously optimistic, if only because I retain a pinch of nostalgia for the time when musicians added a redundant consonant to their names.
Between his hyped sophomore effort “Wavvves” and “Afraid of Heights,” the album he apparently released last year, Nathan Williams has amassed an array of tight, catchy tunes about sunshine, alcohol and bikinis. Since Saturday's event will feature, at best, two-thirds of the content of Williams' auditory output, students ought to apply whichever they can get their hands on vigorously. I, for one, will be leaving my Best Coast tanning oil at home.Pending any unforeseeable disaster, Wavves will be the first fall concert I've attended at Bowdoin, and I intend to enjoy it immensely. In 2011, a failed attempt to change Bowdoin students' narcotic of choice from alcohol to marijuana was thwarted when contract hysterics caused Neon Indian and his chilled out psychadelia to withdraw last minute. Surfer Blood went on in his stead. I am told he is Kreayshawn’s cousin. However, I can't vouch for the veracity of this, for I was at the Cumberland County Civic Center with my father—and possibly the newly outed Deadhead Paul Franco—seeing Furthur, a jam band formed out of the dregs of the Grateful Dead.
My sophomore year, I was shacked up in Reed House, taking the term “lock-in” much too seriously to bother checking out RJD2. Last year, as my readers surely regretted, I was studying in England and not writing about music. (Instead, I wrote about pasties and saw Godspeed You! Black Emperor).
Usually, fall semester is a much more agreeable time for live music at Bowdoin than its spring sibling. Over the past month, I have seen Future Islands and Sun Kil Moon work magic for their Portland audiences in two very different ways. If I trust the musical taste of a punk legend turned medievalist, I'll be seeing Quintron and Miss Pussycat at the Space Gallery in November. Our tiny music scene, though once a crime scene witnessing the death of Galaxie 500, has never quite bulged like this before.
Hopefully, the E-Board can bring someone to #Ivies150 who neither graduated from Tufts nor will break the endowment. My suggestions: Hansen (a band only ’90s kids will remember), a newly revitalized Death Grips, The Pizza Underground, a CD playing Robert Pollard's “Relaxation of the Asshole” or GWAR.
Until then, this weekend will suffice. I'll go to Wavves, and possibly Chance, or perhaps just dance to the new Flying Lotus album. Bowdoin super-senior Tanner Horst, both older than granite and hewn from marble, says it's some “next-level shit.” Either way, the weekend will rock.
Hipster drivel: Perfume Genius’ ‘Too Bright’ is unapologetically raw
“No family is safe when I sashay,” announced Mike Hadreas, under the moniker Perfume Genius, this summer with the release of his brilliant, scintillating single “Queen.” Hide your kids, hide your wife, hide your hard-cover copies of the NAS report—because on his latest album “Too Bright,” Hadreas emerges from his bedroom to prance saucily down the catwalk. His previous efforts, 2010’s intimate “Learning” and 2012’s intense “Put Your Back N 2 It,” felt cloistered and claustrophobic, but “Too Bright” shines with a defiant radiance. In the past, voice cracking and spirit shaking, Hadreas sang about having an affair in high school with a teacher who then threw himself off a building. Now, still haunted, he offers no apology.“I Decline,” the record’s opener, sets this tone with its lyrics of modest refusal. He describes an angel hovering overhead, arms extended in a welcoming embrace, warm smile plastered on its face. It’s a nice image, but Hadreas is in no mood for otherworldly support. He considers the offer for a moment over spare piano chords, and finally murmurs, “that’s all right. I decline.” From this Majical Cloudz-like moment, Hadreas does an about face and channels his inner Freddie Mercury on “Queen.” The power-chord thrust, tingling synths, and hip-shaking gutturals certainly recall Queen the band, but “Queen” the song retains Hadreas’ trademark discomfiting lyrics. “Don’t you know your queen?” he asks, no coincidence that it sounds very much like “don’t you know you’re queer?” Decay features prominently in “Too Bright.” Internalized shame becomes corrosive, as Hadreas’ damaged soul eats away at its cage. On “No Good,” Hadreas wonders if he is “meant to fray to the end” as his body unravels, leaving no place to hang his heart. Not one to give in so easily, he turns the decay into a dare: “I wear my body like a rotted peach / You can have it if you can handle the stink.” The spooky, spidery lurch of “My Body” makes it one of the best dance songs on the album, all the more when it explodes halfway through into the best synth pulse Depeche Mode never wrote.The true centerpiece of “Too Bright,” however, is the soul-swinging, thumb-snapping ode to love-induced idiocy, “Fool.” Hadreas croons to an anonymous lover about picking out a dress for the night, before flitting out of the room to dance. The song fades almost to silence before the synth grows stronger, and Hadreas lets out a swelling gasp of ecstasy, like a fool in love who can’t believe his luck. He sounds more assured for the rest of the song, helped along by the sexy sputter of a sax, when he “does a little move...like a buffoon.” At once self-deprecating and self-accepting, “Fool” showcases all of Perfume Genius’ strengths: his evocative lyrics, impeccable arrangement, and tight sequencing. Most of all, it highlights just how powerful of a singer Hadreas is, his voice shimmering and glimmering, as much Jónsi as Antony. “Fool” is not only fluttery and precise, but also firm and proud, a balance Hadreas maintains perfectly throughout the album.On “Too Bright,” Perfume Genius proves he is deserving of the eponym. He is able to distance himself from the camp of disco music while drawing on the aesthetic of othered musicians who turned the marginal mainstream. But Hadreas does not write gay anthems in the vein of the Village People. The introversion of being raised as the ugly duckling of chillwave’s final brood still shows on “Too Bright.” Like Youth Lagoon before him, Hadreas takes bedroom experiences and blows them up into arena-sized stories. If there’s a manifesto for what “humanity” means in 2014, it’s the message of this record—we’re all a little hurt and a little beautiful. Hadreas claims he is “Too Bright,” but we can’t look away.
Hipster drivel: Anti-poptimist picks for autumn
Maybe it’s the lack of a ubiquitous crotch-affirming anthem a la “Get Lucky” this summer, but hasn’t the music released in the past few months felt a little, you know...flaccid? Such is the neutering toll of poptimism, the inevitable pushback against driveling hipsters, which has turned Coldplay from a bunch of saccharine try-hards into a band of inveterate everymen.
I’ll be the first to defend Ariana Grande, but when Questlove (a member of The Roots, a record collector and a tastemaker) acknowledges the supremacy of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” as the song of the summer, we need to take a cultural step backward. “Fancy” is not the best song of the summer. It’s not even the best song this summer to feature no-fucks given whilst chandelier-swin-ing—that honor would go to Sia’s high-flying single, “Chandelier.”
At its best, the hegemony of poptimism leads to a torpid summer of forgettable music, epitomized by Calvin Harris’ unforgivably unimaginative “Summer.” At its worst, poptimism becomes a vehicle for whitewashing the Billboard charts, under the cynical aegis of “if you can’t beat ’em, appropriate ’em.” We need only look so far as poptimism’s main beneficiary, Taylor Swift, and the god-awful four minutes she tries to pass off as a song in “Shake It Off.” Turn down for racially insensitive stereotypes.
In the words of a rubbery legged Future Islands frontman, however, “seasons change.” With the chill of September, we leave behind this summer’s musical dysfunction (but hold onto that Spoon album) and throw ourselves into another semester at Bowdoin. Let us turn our flannel collars against autumnal winds and poptimist entreaties alike, with thoughts of Weird Al for #Ivies150 to keep us warm. Here are songs to soundtrack the introspection that a Maine fall brings.
“War on the East Coast” by The New Pornographers
Chugging power chords and a euphoric chorus are good indicators for a song vying for the summer title—except this is the New Pornographers, meaning Dan Bejar drawls about total war, sea level rise flooding British Columbia and “wild gypsy shit.” His impenetrable lyrics yield to the sort of hermeneutics you learn at small liberal arts colleges, so dust off those Lacan compendiums. My theory? It’s about the hopelessness of facing down the apocalypse. As for “blondes, brunettes, paper jets?” You try writing a better hook.
“Ultraviolence” by Lana Del Rey
The singer of the decade’s finest song proves she’s no one-hit wonder. Drawing on “Clockwork” and the Crystals, Lana pushes her is-it-satire schtick into the realm of physical abuse. It’s a dangerous game, but she pulls it off beautifully, turning from victim to menace with the swell of the violins. Lana flourishes on the fringe of camp where there is no black and white—only (fifty) shades of grey.
“Chambers” by Cymbals Eat Guitars
If ever a song is to get you to shout “baby’s got cataracts!” in the middle of HL, it’s this one. The bass line and sputtering guitar is enough to drive the song into your memory, but Joseph D’Agostino’s snotty narrative of drug withdrawal keeps it there. Getting high might not be what it used to be, but you wouldn’t believe it from his falsetto.
“You Know Me Well” by Sharon Van Etten
Much how Victoria Legrand stepped into her own with Beach House’s “Teen Dream” four (!) years ago, here Sharon Van Etten embraces her heart and her voice. The result is one of the year’s most devastating couplets, “you know me well / you show me hell,” made all the more poignant with the added sting of, “when I’m looking.” The song is full of such clever but affecting lines, as she implores her lover to “cut me to the chase,” or bellows the title, daring herself to believe it.
“Ancient Ways” by Interpol
Interpol’s Paul Banks remains the king of insufferably dense lyrics on the obviously titled new album “El Pintor.” But that just gives us more fodder for intellectual appraisal. Banks exhorts us to “fuck the ancient ways,” though of which ancient ways he disapproves remains up for debate. Certainly Intrepid’s well-cultivated angular guitar slash, atmospheric production and Joy Division aesthetic don’t need to go on the ancient burn pile.
Hipster drivel: Future Islands shines playing new album live on Letterman
Samuel T. Herring probably isn’t that old, but his receding hairline and burgeoning beer belly put him at about 45. He’s not quite the spitting image of the Coors-shirt-and-cargo-shorts fashion non-statement that is normcore, but that’s only because he might really have played a physical education teacher on Seinfeld. His black t-shirt tucked into khakis screams washed-up uncle more than charismatic singer of an art-pop band from Baltimore—but guess which one he is?
Future Islands is a band that has never gotten its due. Formed in 2006 out of the dregs of its college lineup, the trio has toured relentlessly in small venues, always leaving an impression but never catching a break. Three sort-of-well-received but not-too-well-received albums deep, Future Islands spent last year recording their fourth and probably best album, “Singles,” and got invited to perform on Letterman. Usually, exposure on late night shows gives good bands good publicity, but Letterman is a famously frosty host. His reaction to some bands more resembles Ed Sullivan’s treatment of “Let’s Spend The Night Together” by The Rolling Stones than Jimmy Fallon’s greeting of Ariel Pink.
But here’s the thing: Future Islands played spectacularly. The Independent called their performance of “Seasons (Waiting on You),” “jaw-dropping,” precisely because Herring looked like “a repressed P.E. teacher finally allowed to direct the school play.” As soon as the synth slashed into life, Herring began a bizarre delivery, part peacock-mating ritual, part ocean-cruise croon. He dipped and dodged across the stage, a true Napoleon Dynamite, voice straining in all the right places.
Right as the song surged into the pre-chorus, Herring pumped his fist into the air only to draw it back as if only he understood the raw power of his energy. “People change,” he roared, before beating his chest and digging his pointer finger into his breast, “but some people never do.” Manic, hulking and utterly unforgettable, Herring and Future Islands finally found a medium they were suited for: TV. A stunned Letterman thanked them, crying “I’ll take all of that you got,” and soon after tried to turn Herring’s dance moves into a meme.
Whether or not Herring’s chest-pounding becomes as enduring a moment for late night television as Jagger’s eye-roll is unimportant. Future Islands’ performance on Letterman wouldn’t mean much if it didn’t highlight all the best things about “Singles:” its melodrama, its goofiness, its all-in attitude. The band owns its sound—self-described on Twitter as “too noisy for new wave, too pussy for punk”—on this record, just as Herring owns his combover and equally rubbery legs and voice.
That voice is easily the most commanding presence on Singles. It occupies the space between guttural whisper and raspy falsetto, often within a single song, while Herring still manages to sound as effortless as a lounge singer. In “Fall from Grace,” he takes the spoken-to-scream structure from early National songs and blows Matt Berninger out of the water with a death metal cannonball.
“Was it all inside of me” might sound like the angst-ridden lyrics of a teenage metal band still in the “mom’s garage” phase of its career, but coming from Future Islands, it’s a revelation. Everything Herring sings could have been penned stream-of-consciousness, giving the songs enough fluidity to allow him to get down and dance. Egged on by basslines with a personality and bubbling slices of the synth, every song on “Singles” is a weird pop morass made even weirder by Herring’s off-kilter delivery. Neither cool nor kitsch, Future Islands has created a human album from inhuman elements. The songs grow, twist and ache with Herring’s pulse, as empty or as full as we’d like them to be.
Hipster drivel: Timeflies when you’re waiting for Ivies: a playlist to usher in the festivities
April is the cruelest month, and no one knows such cruelty better than the Bowdoin student arriving back on campus after Spring Break. We arrive in dreary Brunswick to trees as barren as our beds, temperatures as low as our GPAs, and snow as slushy as our desire to don muck boots and make the trek to Thorne. Yet we muster the will which says, “Hold on. Inside we are ignited, we dreamers, aflame.” Enough of freezing people recollecting snow. Ivies beckons and we must heed its call.
But beware: These ivied exhortations are in more danger than usual this year. Our lineup of a Sammy Adams alternative and the guy who soundtracks “Grey’s Anatomy” inspires more tears than imbibed beers. Is Mat Kearney the E-Board's pre-emptive strike against couples fornicating under the Whittier bleachers again? As for Timeflies, the third Tufts-bred performer to come to campus in two years, I’d rather they at least keep it in the family. Thank Dionysus for Racer X.I still have utter faith that not even Kearney's limpest lyrics and sorriest soft-rock sighs could dampen Bowdoin bacchanalia. But I believe that music should heighten, not hamper, your annual ritual of all things sinful, so I've composed a playlist to blast us into, and through, Ivies. Here's to putting the muse back in music. Here's to “Get Lucky.”
“Good Sex” - Kevin DrewKevin Drew is a member of Broken Social Scene who came to Bowdoin in 2008, back before we became Broken Music Scene, and he has returned from the outer space sounds of his post-rock pals to plop into your bedroom. He sings “Good Sex” bright-eyed and beaming, reminding us that “good sex should never make you feel hollow” even at the height of debauchery. But then he winks, presciently adding, “good sex should never make you feel clean.” The honesty turns a banal subject into an intimate affair, and the swelling hypnosis of the piano will have us all coming back for more. This is a love song for the pre-Ivies tryst, or a cozy flash of exhibition—brief, human, heart-warming. “I'm still breathing with you, baby,” he coos, willing us to remember that we Bowdoin students are in this together.
“Drunk in Love” – BeyoncéIf “Good Sex” is the buzz, “Drunk in Love” is the intoxication. Indeed, perhaps a better title for the Bowdoin student would be “In Love Drunk,” but Ivies is no time to be parsing words. “I've been drinking, I want you,” Queen B roars, summing up Friday night with precision. Subtext is for the weak and sober. We divas and hustlers have no time for such beating around the bush. With Bey on our lips and drink loosening our hips, “Drunk in Love” is the triumphant celebration of the heart and body. We're young, we're raucous, we’re having breasteses for breakfast.
“Delorean Dynamite” - Todd TerjeHe's a mustachioed Norwegian DJ with a debut record called “It’s Album Time.” If that doesn’t sound fun, you should probably listen to Mat Kearney. Terje gets the party started. This is the song to play during the early Saturday rally: no one can feel hung over while grooving to Scandinavian disco. The beat takes all the fun in the cosmos and places it in your very soul—so why not blast it throughout the day as well? It's worth it just for the Daft Punk-esque breakdown halfway, which is sure to get even the most dazed concert goers back on their feet.
“April's Song” - Real EstateThe cruelest month gets its sweetest song. The profound pleasantness of Real Estate is in top form here—and good thing too. Demanding too much investment in the Sunday haze could prove disastrous. “April’s Song” is the tune to crack the last Natty Ice to and survey the wreckage from the comfort of lawn chairs: a snoozing roommate, a loose pair of jorts stained by some dubious elixir, a trashed dorm you're thinking of not cleaning up because you only have a few more weeks here anyway. The air is thick with sadness that it's over, and pride that we made it through. Your only move left is to high-five your buds and pretend tomorrow isn't Monday.
Hipster drivel: ‘Lost in the Dream’: best heard on the road
For me, there’s only one way to listen to Tom Petty, on the road. I was raised that way. Sure, Talking Heads or The Police soundtracked dinner and family game night, but when my Deadhead of a dad ushered me into the car, it was Tom Petty who’d serenade us all the way to soccer practice.
“Damn the Torpedoes,” “Full Moon Fever” and especially “Echo”—I knew those records inside and out. They were the type of album I always heard all the way through, as I stared out the window at the golden shade of streetlamps zipping by on the way home from New York City. My mother and sisters usually drifted off into their own golden slumbers, so it was just us boys: me, my dad and the Heartbreakers.
The experience of listening to music on a car stereo—whether from the tape deck or radio—has an immediacy that’s lost in the iPod age. I had no idea what the names of the songs were (ok, they weren’t hard to guess, this is don’t-bore-us-skip-to-the-chorus Petty after all), giving them an economy of ignorance, a preciousness out of fleetingness. Every now and then, I hear a song that instantly transports me back to 2:00 a.m. in the backseat of the old Goodrich-mobile on an anonymous interstate.
Funnily enough, this year has brought a return of the long drive anthem. Two o’ clock in the morning on an anonymous interstate is exactly how one should listen to the new album from the War on Drugs, “Lost in the Dream."
It’s more than the profound pleasantness of heyday FM radio that the War on Drugs capture and make their own. It’s the yearning for a distant past that we think we’ll reach if we just take the road far enough in pursuit of a long-lost lover who alone holds the power of our rejuvenation. Sometimes I think that every radio hit released in the 1980s riffed on the nostalgia of heartbreak—“Love Is a Long Road,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “The Boys of Summer”—and I can only imagine listening to them with the window rolled down and the horizon calling my name.
This is the legacy that the War on Drugs have inherited. The road is the medium on which life’s journey plays out, whether lost on back streets looking for the address your new girlfriend gave you, or speeding down the highway away from the wreckage of a crash-and-burn relationship. The sound that Adam Granduciel and company have cultivated over the years is so drenched in gauzy guitar reverb and “Born in the USA”-era Springsteen that they’ve pioneered a new genre, dubbed “bossgaze” by a puckish Pitchfork staffer.
“Lost in the Dream,” their third album, continues this tradition of updating Springsteen and Petty. It begins with an out-of-place ticking that quickly builds into hazy rumble, like the sound an old clunker makes when you put keys in the ignition for the first time after a long winter. Listening to the War on Drugs after their three year hiatus is similarly panic inducing. Their 2011 record “Slave Ambient” sounded so good, ran so well, that I wondered if they might need an oil check after so long of a break. I needn’t have worried. Thirty seconds in, the struggling mass of sound suddenly resolves into the memorable piano riff that drives the opener, “Under the Pressure.” Thirty seconds in, and “Lost in the Dream” is running beautifully.
Granduciel has gained the reputation of a perfectionist, which explains the delay between albums. He hasn’t been wasting his time, however. This record, despite its lo-fi pretensions, might be the best-produced album since Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.” The length of each song—seven clock in at over five minutes—allows the band to sprawl out on the open highway, giving them room to both maneuver U-turns and build chilling crescendos. The piano in “Under the Pressure” inconspicuously drops out three minutes in, replaced by a horn section that gives the song enough soul to ride out the remaining five minutes in a happy groove. As Granduciel alters the melody slightly, singing “lying on a hill / dancing in the rain / hiding in the back / loosening my grip,” you can feel your hips move in the driver’s seat before the refrain bursts out of him. The same goes for “Red Eyes,” which, inspired by the euphoric build-up of “Dancing in the Dark,” feels like a car merging onto a highway right as Granduciel gives a life-affirming exclamation and the guitars explode into an instantly classic riff.
These moments of brilliance, though sprinkled throughout the album, do run the risk of getting lost in the dream themselves. They sound so natural, so utterly essential, that they slide into the background, biding their time until the alert listener stumbles on them. Such is Granduciel’s craft, taking an era of rock radio not known for its subtlety and drawing out the complex world of human relationships and emotions on an ethereal, druggy highway.
Last summer, as my dad and I were driving back from a late-night concert, we discussed the various tatters that had become our lives. He moved to grab a comforting CD—presumably Petty—but I suggested we give my music a chance. As we forged forward, awash in streetlamp amber, I put on the War on Drugs. We sat silently, moving endlessly, nowhere behind us, nowhere ahead. The road is life, and this is its soundtrack.
Hipster drivel: Sun Kil Moon sings stories of tragedy in new album ‘Benji’
My grandpa died when I was sixteen. I had recently moved to Maine, and he to Walla Walla—the bookends of the Miles family were at the bookends of the nation. Though I had met the man only twice, I knew I should feel sad at his passing. It was the first experience I had with the loss of my own flesh and blood, so in deference to his memory, I collapsed onto the gray carpeting, happy to feel sad. Stupidly, comically, I hooked up my computer to some speakers, pulled up iTunes, and double-clicked on “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis, a song that isn’t about death—a song that isn’t really about anything at all. In my head, the death of my grandfather is inextricably connected to 1995 Britpop excess.
Life doesn’t make sense, and I get the feeling that neither does death. We might not be able to have one without the other, but that doesn’t justify the passing of loved ones. Death might be the mother of beauty, but just how beautiful are the deaths of our mothers?
Mark Kozelek, alias Sun Kil Moon, doesn’t ask this question on his new album “Benji,” but the entire thing sounds like something of an answer. He offers no cure-all for grief, but still finds ways to make us laugh. “Benji” is one of the saddest, most poignant albums released this decade, and the most deeply, awkwardly and honestly human.
My first attempt to listen to it took place at 2:00 a.m. on a Friday night. I barely made it past the instant-classic opening lines of “Oh Carissa, when I first saw you, you were a lovely child / The last time I saw you, you were fifteen and pregnant and running wild” before protesting to the night that it was just too damn sad. I tried again the next day, only to find myself crying in Hawthorne-Longfellow Library as Carissa’s story unfolded.
“Benji” is about stories and how our memories relate to each other to form some graspable narrative. It feels more like short story cycle than an album. The feeling is compounded by the fact that Kozelek doesn’t sing songs. He mumbles them like the soft and gentle sound of euthanasia, without concern for chorus or meter, a stream-of-consciousness vomit befitting King Kendrick. Sure, there’s an acoustic guitar, and even a soft-rock sax on closer “Ben’s My Friend,” but these instruments merely add interest. The emphasis on his writing is awkward as he crams weighty lines into fractured meters. This unbalanced eeriness turns the listener into a healthy visitor peering from room to room in a hospice home.
Kozelek’s brutal, gut-wrenching honesty would border on the voyeuristic if not for his ability to sound tender and intensely human when discussing his cousin’s fiery death. The closest he comes to a chorus is in the lilting lullaby line “Carissa was 35, you don’t just raise two kids, take out your trash, and die.”
Her death is made all the more tragic by its circumstance, the moment when “an aerosol can blew up in the trash,” reducing her home to a hell just as she was about to “start her midnight shift as RN in Wadsworth.” But then—get this—we find that her grandfather, Kozelek’s uncle, died in the exact same way. It’s true, if only because you can’t make this shit up. “Goddamn,” Kozelek muses, deadpan, “what were the odds?”
The only solutions to life’s absurd sadness that Kozelek envisions are the stories he weaves. On “Pray for Newtown,” he freely admits that he’s no praying man, and that maybe if he were, death wouldn’t seem so senseless. The best he can do, then, is to “sing and pray for women and children and moms and dads and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts” affected by the massacre. He knows how woefully inadequate his poultice is for despair, but that shouldn’t stop us, when we’re getting married or out shopping, from reflecting. Memory may hinder our ability to move on, but Kozelek implores us to cherish what we do remember—about our relatives, our first loves, our childhoods—before we lose them to Alzheimer’s or rogue aerosol spray cans.
“Now to find some poetry, to make some sense of this, to find a deeper meaning,” Kozelek sings on “Carissa,” sounding unconvinced that he can, but assuring his dead cousin anyway: “I’ll sing your name across every sea.”
Hipster drivel: Mark McGuire’s ‘Along the Way’ draws on progressive-rock roots
Recently, I’ve realized that the albums I use in playlists for when I’m cranking out a paper have infiltrated the playlists I put on when I’m having sex. Yes, you can find those playlists on my Spotify account. Yes, you can borrow them whenever you want for whatever your reason, and yes, you can find Mark McGuire’s new album “Along the Way” on either one.
Beyond the carnality of my essays, the collegiality of my lovemaking and the banality of my playlist titles, Mark McGuire reveals a trend in electronic music in the post-dubstep world with his dichotomous sound—ambient yet visceral, and ethereal yet physical. Much like fellow producers like Burial, Nicolas Jaar and Jon Hopkins conjure sterile soundscapes only to fill them with life and feeling, Mark McGuire marries the hedony of Donna Summer disco to the austerity of Aphex Twin ambience.
Maybe that isn’t quite fair. After all, the first sound we hear on opening track, “Awakening,” is an acoustic guitar, hardly the staple of the electronic musician. But how does one even begin to define an electronic musician in 2014, 10years after all the rock kids sold their guitars to buy turntables? “Reflektor”—the de facto Arcade Fire-LCD Soundsystem collaboration last year might have finally rendered distinctions between genres like rock and electronic music irrelevant—if they’ve ever been relevant at all.
Hipster drivel: The good, the great, and the indie: top-rated albums of 2013
Reports of the music industry’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The year 2013 was a tour de force year for music fans.
From pop stalwarts making good on early promise, to upstarts just cutting their teeth, we got album after album of challenging, important and just plain fun tunes. Yeezus be praised. Whoever says music isn’t what it used to be must be paying too much attention to the Grammys. That white dude who played at Colby last year won some stuff—in addition to four Grammys, Macklemore won Humble Brag of the Year and Most Bizarre Wedding Singer.
At last, the banjo has been reclaimed from Mumford & Sons by a multi-instrumentalist worthy of the “Heir to Sufjan” title. Recorded on the road during a tour of tiny midwestern venues, “Love’s Crushing Diamond” is breathtakingly gorgeous. It is an album resplendent with shimmering strings and warbling vocals. A delicate, transitory record, it clocks in at just over a half hour, and is all the more precious because of it.
Talk of the Quad: The way life should be—but isn't
I decided to leave Bowdoin sometime during winter break last year. By itself, that isn’t unusual—many Bowdoin students (more than half of the Class of 2015 according to the Orient) choose to study abroad their junior year. A semester abroad is a break from the rigors and routine of the liberal arts life, a chance to escape from Bowdoin’s smallness to the planet’s vastness. And if we tick off the “expanded horizons” box on our list of life experiences (or is that our resume?) in a country where we can legally purchase alcohol, it’s happy accident!
These benefits of going abroad were certainly on my mind last January, but I admit that my main reason for leaving Bowdoin was just that: leaving Bowdoin.
It’s no secret that I feel out of place on campus. The kid who spent his entire sophomore year haranguing against lax investment policies and getting into scuffles with the administration doesn’t exactly scream “typical Polar Bear.” Don’t rock the boat, dude.
A step in the right direction towards carbon neutrality
Congratulations, Bowdoin. You have made a significant step forward in making carbon neutrality by 2020 a more realistic goal.
I refer, of course, to President Mills’s announcement last week that the Board of Trustees has approved a solar grid project on land by the former Naval Air Station. If built, the project will be eight times larger than any currently existing solar array in Maine, and would offset 8 percent of Bowdoin’s annual electricity usage.
This is no mean feat. To my knowledge, it represents the single sexiest thing the College has done to lessen its environmental impact since it first announced plans for carbon neutrality in 2007. The solar array was nothing but vague potential in the first Climate Neutrality Implementation Plan in 2009, and still mired in vocabulary like “we are considering planning” in the 2011 update. An announced proposal for the solar panel system—although downsized 35 percent to 1,300 kilowatts from the original 2,000—shows that the College is indeed making strides toward carbon neutrality.
Hipster drivel: Chvrches’ new LP shows promising synthesis of recycled sounds
I first put on “Gun,” a single from the band Chvrches’ new LP “The Bones of What You Believe,” over breakfast on a bright August morning some weeks ago. This was the first time I’d heard the oft-hyped electro-pop outfit of bright-eyed Glaswegians. They had released their debut EP, “Recover,” to modest fanfare back in March after a string of appearances at Austin’s South by Southwest music and arts festival. Although I was there, Vampire Weekend and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s had kept me from catching a performance.
But after listening to “Gun” while munching my Wheaties, I was furious at myself: I had chosen to see established stalwarts instead of taking a chance on an up-and-comer. Now, Chvrches are making good on the initial promise of that EP—and it sounds fantastic.
Not that Chvrches are the making of a generation-defining band. No, their rise to fame is as curious as it is unlikely. How many bands toting synthesizers has this post-LCD Soundsystem decade spawned—and how many more of them are actually any good? Contemporary pop music is drenched in sounds leftover from ’80s pioneers like Eurythmics; Stereogum recently posted an article heralding the decline of guitar-based rock (citing Chrvches, no less, and of course Thom Yorke’s gloomy statement in 1993, “pop is dead”).
Hipster drivel: The summer of Miley, Kanye and Deerhunter
New summer music is like a crisp beer on the beach—a welcome break from the Bubble. We may, now again, be facing the tribulations that another year at Bowdoin brings—Moulton or Thorne, Mac or Quinby, writing that paper or getting drunk—which is all the more reason to remain awash in nostalgia for summer 2013 through the tones of Pharrell’s velvety voice.
It was an everyman’s type of summer, wasn’t it? For the frat boys, Robin Thicke supplied “Blurred Lines,” laced with the lyrical equivalent of roofies, as much hackneyed as it was rape-y. For the fans of Miley Cyrus (alas, I cannot pinpoint which demographic that is anymore), “We Can’t Stop” galumphed its way to the top of the radio charts. Even that key constituency housed in the overlapping Venn diagram of Miley fans and errant pedants was appeased when the Oxford English Dictionary snuggled “twerk” between “‘twere” and “twerp” on its hallowed one-thousand-and-eighty-sixth page.
But for us—we purveyors of fine taste—this summer was especially fruitful. With the one-two punch of Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” and the National’s “Trouble Will Find Me” dropping in the midst of finals in May (my grades sank while my spirit soared), this knock-out of a summer began. Here’s what was blasting through my speakers.
Hipster drivel: Mainstream is magic on Ivies weekend
“If music be the food of love, play on,” quoth the Bard: “Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.”
Shakespeare never met a Bowdoin College student on the brink of Ivies, did he? Indulging appetite to excess is our job this time of year, and judging by how much brainpower we devote each semester to yearning for these few days, I doubt it ever dies. We’re made of sterner stuff than Duke Orsino.
I’m not at all ashamed to say that the debauched spirit of Ivies has even corrupted the heretofore unblemished hipster cred of yours truly. The ivory tower of the music snob gets lonely, my Buddy Holly glasses have become unwieldy, and my vinyl has stopped playing properly. This week, I will retire my cardigan and take up a pinny. Instead of hipster, I shall Guster.
Bowdoin used to be leader in trends and must continue
Over Spring Break, one of the preliminaries to the Bowdoin Project caught my attention. It discussed the development of the concept of the common good at the College, which today seems vital to our institution. The report contends that Joseph McKeen, when referencing the common good in 1802, noted the nation’s need of ministers. The revival of the conceit 200 years later raises the inevitable question—just how constructed is our understanding of the common good?
I will not attempt to defend the common good, if it indeed needs defending. I am more concerned with moments of uncommon good in Bowdoin’s history. When has Bowdoin demonstrated extraordinary leadership in the face of extraordinary adversity?
The question matters because of the uncommon threat that climate change poses, made worse by a Congress that seems hellbent on ignoring science so long as corporations continue to line its pockets (see the Senate’s symbolic approval of the Keystone XL pipeline a few weeks ago). Urgent action has been taken by four colleges known for their “experimental” education methods, in divesting from the fossil fuel industry, while more traditional schools all look at each other sheepishly, like Bowdoin students with cold feet before a Polar Bear plunge. “You first.”
Hipster drivel: Dark side of Flaming Lips' 'Terror' overwhelms
When the Flaming Lips announced that they would be releasing their thirteenth album, “The Terror,” on April 1, I was expecting an April Fools joke. The holiday is perfect for these merry pranksters, who are now in their fourth decade of existence.
By “existence,” I mean releasing songs on a flash drive in a bubblegum-flavored gummy fetus, recording a 24-hour-long single and selling it inside real human skulls; producing Steve from “Blue’s Clues” debut album (Pitchfork gave it a 7.8 rating), and of course, collaborating with Ke$ha on the forthcoming effort Lip$ha.
Perhaps, then, you can excuse my skepticism. Amidst all these antics, after all, when could the Lips find the time to record an album? Their last proper album, "Embryonic," was released in 2009, though the band has been suffering from no dearth of headlines. To wit: in 2010, they recreated the classic Pink Floyd album, "Dark Side of the Moon," to give us all another option when watching “The Wizard of Oz,” and last year, brought Ke$ha, Bon Iver, and Yoko Ono all on the same album together. They’ve just been too busy, surely, and the April 1 release date was a sure sign of more antics.
Hipster drivel: Youth Lagoon back in action after "Year of Hibernation"
After burning in the sun for more than an hour, I was about to walk into Warehouse 1100, where Pitchfork was hosting its party showcase of indie rock up-and-comers. This was, of course, at South by Southwest, the film/technology/music shitshow that attracts angel-headed hipsters to Austin, Texas every year. My fellow Polar Bear representatives and I hadn’t anticipated the long line (apparently our obscure tastes just weren’t obscure enough), so we tried to look as nonchalant as possible as Pitchfork-approved acts like Mac DeMarco and Waxahatchee came and went.
We made it in, however, after much kvetching about the VIPs (were they really all that important?) who sauntered into the at-capacity venue ahead of us, and made our way to the outdoor stage. With our fake plastic sunglasses—free as part of a Nikon ad campaign—and an authentic love of music planted firmly in our heads and hearts, we ambled outside. We were greeted by a head of curls, partially dyed turquoise and lavender, under a jauntily perched hat that obscured the big round glasses of Trevor Powers, alias Youth Lagoon.
Powers is no Justin Timberlake, but I couldn’t stop my fanboy from showing a little bit. His debut album, “The Year of Hibernation,” was my favorite record of 2011. The album sounds like it was recorded in his closet (it was), but far from seeming claustrophobic, it soars with doe-eyed optimism and resounding crescendos. If it weren’t for the cigarette he was taking drags from, Powers would have looked no older than seventeen. That’s part of his charm; he’s a 24-year-old who dropped out of college to turn his adolescent imaginings into reality.
Hipster drivel: Musical elements run amok in Atoms for Peace's debut album
Now here’s a hard one. Though, as I kept having to remind myself while wading through this album’s murky depths, if it had been easy, Thom Yorke—notably of Radiohead—wouldn’t have made it.
The record in question is “AMOK,” the debut record of Atoms for Peace, one of those supergroups that refuses to call itself a supergroup. The band takes its name both from a 1953 speech by President Eisenhower and a song title on Yorke’s 2006 album, “The Eraser.” The musicians that comprise the band were even commissioned to play Yorke’s solo material live, for which Atoms for Peace were originally billed as “Thom Yorke???” during Coachella in 2010.
This naming makes sense: “AMOK” sounds like a vanity project of Yorke, his ethereal whisper the cohesive element to the album’s otherwise frenetic electronic jumble. Normally, vanity projects represent the worst work of an artist looking for vindication outside a certain genre. In the hands of anyone but music’s greatest living crotchety-bastard legend, “AMOK” would be an album of pathetic excess. Instead, we get an impenetrable piece filled with jumbled beeps on a time signature even Battles would have a hard time keeping up with. My first bit of advice: listen to this with headphones in. The second bit: don’t expect a Radiohead album.
MBV makes heartfelt comeback
It’s not Smile, it’s not Detox, and it’s not Half-Life 3. It’s better. And it’s real. After 21 years of false starts, broken promises, and nervous breakdowns, Kevin Shields has emerged from his reclusive lair, no longer hamstrung by crippling perfectionism: My Bloody Valentine’s third album in as many decades has seen the light of day. And rather than enjoying the sun, the band, true to form, continues to gaze down at their shoes. I am not a hardcore MBV fan by any measure. I was not one of the 13,491 people to like the band’s Facebook status update last Saturday announcing their return with a simple sentence: “We are preparing to go live with the new album/website this evening.”
Yo La Tengo still going strong in new album
Fade, Yo La Tengo’s thirteenth full-length album, opens with a repeating, clicking rhythm that immediately invites foot-tapping. This beat is shortly joined by an otherworldly sound, like the croon of some mystical beast. The tension rises as the drum and shaker come in. This beat is contrasted with the floating harmony, which together evoke separate inclinations in the mind and body, one to the dance floor and the other to the skies. Supported by a classic Yo La Tengo guitar jangle melody and fuzzy bass line, the opener creates a sense of tantric bliss reminiscent of the track’s name, “Ohm.”
Ocean defies norms in sound and spirit
Year-end lists in music criticism are often like members of my extended family: put them together and they remember why they hate each other. Online magazine NME, with its bewildering loyalty to a Brit-pop agenda, is the self-aggrandizing snot-of-a-cousin who still thinks MySpace is cool. Rolling Stone is the balding uncle who thinks relevance means waiting out for another Eagles' album; Spin is the brother who regretted coming the moment he stepped in; Pitchfork is the other brother who shows up late to drink the free alcohol and goad everyone as much as possible. NPR rounds out the family tree as the desperate patriarch hoping to hold his family together, and does so—unwillingly—only by giving everyone else a common enemy.
Stripped down, Khan empowers in ‘The Haunted Man’
Take a look at the cover art to “The Haunted Man,” the new album by Natasha Khan, alias Bat for Lashes, who is proving to be the indie music industry’s answer to Adele. You don’t have to scrutinize the album art too long for the word “stripped” to come to mind. The first thing you notice when listening to the record is what’s missing. Just like Khan’s (lack of) clothes in the artwork, there is no lead single that propels the album, like the song “Daniel” from her 2009 yearning, witch-pop gem “Two Suns.” Does “The Haunted Man” suffer because of it? Probably, but what album would not suffer from the absence of an immediately affecting lead single? The album is most impressive because, even without something as catchy as “Daniel,” it succeeds as a well-balanced album filled with grace and beauty.
GY!BE’s newest album grinds, drones to success
Exclamation points! Impossibly long thematic gestures! Deliberately obscure-sounding faux words posing as real words! No, it’s not the next presidential debate, but “Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!” the fascinating new album from everybody’s favorite peculiarly punctuated band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. This album, quietly released at a show in Boston three weeks ago, marks the triumphant return of some of the music industry’s most confounding artists. In 2003, GY!BE declared an indefinite hiatus to allow band members to pursue other musical endeavors.
Grizzly Bear’s new album pleases serious listeners
Jagged guitar licks, resounding crescendos, themes of loneliness and melancholy—I know it sounds like Arcade Fire, but these are all components of Grizzly Bear’s newest album “Shields.”
Few conclusions to draw from Clery report
The Office of Safety and Security released the 2010 Annual Report on Campus Crime, Fires, Alcohol and Illegal Drugs in an email to the Bowdoin community on Monday. Changes in the numbers between 2009 and 2010 did not illustrate any conclusive themes. The annual report is federally mandated by the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act of 1998.
Total giving to College down in 2011, annual giving steady
The Office of Planning and Development saw a decrease in the value of gifts to Bowdoin this year, as many of the remaining pledges from the College's 2009 capital campaign were paid off last year. In fiscal year (FY) 2011, the College took in gifts worth $35.9 million, a 25 percent decrease from FY 2010 in which it received gifts totaling just over $48 million.
Bowdoin Brief: Thief hits Pickard Field House, Harpswell home, Buck center
Safety and Security and the Brunswick Police Department (BPD) are on the lookout after a flurry of burglaries struck campus this past weekend.