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music / / poetry / / philosophy / / -ology by Nick Courtright

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Hot Off the Press: Archives of an Overworked Music Critic

As most of you know, I do this little music journalism thing on the side because I have so much spare time I don’t even know what to do with myself.  In addition to doing regular concert previews and reviews for Austinist, and writing feature interviews for Soundcheck Magazine, for the last four months I’ve been running a weekly album review column for Transmission Entertainment called Hot Off the Press, which discusses in sometimes-professional, sometimes-notsomuch manner incredibly new albumsabout half the time the albums are reviewed before they are released to the public, a luxury I have due to a combination of media hook-ups and blatant theft of unpublicized leaks.

The result of this is that I’m often way ahead of the game on albums, thus providing some of the initial “hype” or “bust” sentiment stewing around the internet, and that I am often reviewing albums before I really have a damn clue what I’m talking aboutthere are a couple rethinkers (I should have given You & Me more time, and the early weeks of HOTP are pretty thin), but for the most part I think I got it right the first go’round.  So, without further ado, here is a considerable list of links (click the red to be magically transported to the full review), in reverse chronological order:

16: Women & Pit Er Pat

Women (Women): “…there is a very thick haze of early Animal Collective-ness populating this album, as you can almost see the two groups together—long before AC’s electro-obsession took full hold—bounding around a campfire in loincloths, shaking tambourines and scaring children…” Report Card: B+

Pit Er Pat (High Time): “…the big problem here is that while 2006’s Pyramids seemed like an album maybe ahead of its time, High Time, an almost uncomfortably ironic title, feels like an album that’s hit the shelves a good five years too late…” Report Card: C

15: Crystal Stilts & Times New Viking

Crystal Stilts (Alight of Night): “…it’s as if the woe woe woe of Crystal Stilts’ approach is so draped in mascara tears that fans have no choice but to bob their heads in utter happiness that they found something so compulsively hip-shaking and degenerate…” Report Card: B+

Times New Viking (Stay Awake EP): “…it’s difficult to figure if what Times New Viking is doing makes any sense—after all, it’s impossible not to wonder whether they would be “better” if they stopped recording on such shitty equipment…” Report Card: B

14: Deerhoof & Megapuss

Deerhoof (Offend Maggie): “…despite oft-indiscernible lyrics, the obscurity of their songs, and a distinct lack of sex appeal, Deerhoof has successfully built an adoring fan base, and these realities make it all the more mystifying and disappointing that Offend Maggie lacks the spikes in extreme glee that their last couple albums have provided so willingly…” Report Card: B

Megapuss (Surfing): “…in many ways, Devendra Banhart and Greg Rogove’s album is juvenile, senseless, random, filthy, awkward, head-scratching, and sometimes just plain stupid.  And yet, despite all of these fitting adjectives, Surfing works…” Report Card: B+

13: Juana Molina & Final Fantasy

Juana Molina (Un Día): “…through its sheer bombast and ambition, Un Día is bound to find a wider and more enthusiastic American audience than her previous efforts—songs such as the title track and “Los Hongos de Marosa” are so stunning it’d be a shame if American audiences didn’t catch on…” Report Card: A-

Final Fantasy (Plays to Please EP & Spectrum, 14th Century EP): “…frontman Owen Pallett is one of those wildly bright and frustratingly eccentric types, and these two EPs expand upon the already iconoclastic canon he has constructed, as he uses additional manpower to back his stunning string arrangements with the familiar-but-300-years-old sounds of chamber music…” Report Card: B

12: TV on the Radio & Cold War Kids

TV on the Radio (Dear Science): “…the melodrama in TV on the Radio’s music regularly foams over the surface, and although the hugeness of their approach may turn some fickle listeners off at first blush, repeated listens will draw in even the most skeptical fans of singer-songwriters and sparse arrangement…” Report Card: A

Cold War Kids (Loyalty to Loyalty): “…Cold War Kids are so divisive even your grandparents argue over whether they are the shining light of new soul rock come down from above to lead us all into a new era of heartfelt tunesmanship, or whether they are a bunch of underschooled and self-absorbed fools with an editing deficiency who are example 1A of blog bands gone painfully awry…” Report Card: B-

11:Peter Bjorn and John & Grouper

Peter Bjorn and John (Inland Empire): “…Seaside Rock is a testament to a band who’s willing to say a little bit of ‘fuck you’ to the slavering masses, a testament that declares that musical integrity and continued exploration are more important to this band than a continued assault on the tender eardrums of the thoughtless youth. Either that or they’re running away, like pansies, from expectations…” Report Card: B

Grouper (Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill): “…if it weren’t for the fact that Grouper makes her music almost impossible to hear on purpose, you’d really want to suggest that she find a better producer, or at least stop strumming the guitar seventy feet underwater…” Report Card: B-

10: Department of Eagles & Fight Bite

Department of Eagles (In Ear Park): “…while the ups can be pretty spectacular, In Ear Park is ultimately done in by its questionable revision—one almost gets the feeling that Rossen and Nicolaus felt rushed to get this out while the hype is high…” Report Card: B-

Fight Bite (Emerald Eyes): “…while the band name Fight Bite may conjure up images of Mike Tyson, crazed look in his eyes, with a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear in his mouth, this music couldn’t be further from that image. If anything, the image that’s brought up is one of Tyson and Holyfield walking through a garden of daisies, perhaps holding hands…” Report Card: A-

9: Of Montreal

Of Montreal (Skeletal Lamping): “…and only then did it become easier to accept the possibility that [Kevin Barnes had] not lost himself completely in a bizarre world of cocks, asses, and transgender dance parties wildly galloping through the thesaurus…” Report Card: B+

8: The Bug & Kemialliset Ystävät

The Bug (London Zoo): “…while the scowl this album wears makes much hardcore rap look like child’s play, the album’s polarizing effects are a sign of its ingenuity—Martin’s sensibilities regarding darkness and repetition make it the perfect collection of anthems for sneering and cursing as you cut off other drivers on the highway…” Report Card: A

Kemialliset Ystävät (Harmaa Laguuni): “…this particular collection of sounds is a little less shocking to the ears than their prior studio work; that’s not to say, though, that it won’t elicit plenty of ‘what the hell are you listening to’ comments from passersby, because it certainly will…” Report Card: B-

7: Vivian Girls & The Music Tapes

Vivian Girls (Vivian Girls): “…Vivian Girls’ clattering, energetic approach to punky two minute pop-rock is befitting of the web’s fawning, and surely soon enough the Brooklyn trio (all women, no less) will be the darlings of a wider populus…even if the album as a whole doesn’t thrill as fabulously as the first couple singles would have you believe…” Report Card: B

The Music Tapes (Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes): “…what good possibly could come from Koster’s collection, being that he is notoriously obsessed with the singing saw, of all random instruments, that he personally has never released a truly proper LP, and that he’s been working on this album for nine freaking years?…” Report Card: B

6: Lackthereof & Conor Oberst

Lackthereof (Your Anchor): “…notable because they are the primary project of Menomena member Danny Seim, Lackthereof makes music that sounds like a Menomena song lying prone on the studio room floor, like an engine taken totally apart and put only a little bit back together…” Report Card: B-

Conor Oberst (Conor Oberst): “…as his growing pains have presented themselves to the listening public, that incredible urgency has gone missing in his work, and to some critics he’s been relegated to has-been status—a time capsule at the ripe old age of twenty-eight…” Report Card: C-

5: Bodies of Water & Russian Red

Bodies of Water (A Certain Feeling): “…rarely has an album truly jumped out and demanded to follow in the bombastic footsteps of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne’s Canadian outfit, while still being talented and unique enough not merely to seem like parrots.  But A Certain Feeling has that quality to it…” Report Card: A

Russian Red (I Love Your Glasses): “…words of wisdom for the listener are twofold: #1 if you listen to this album, start with track two so you don’t get your hopes too high, and #2 Hernández is only twenty-two years old, so she still has plenty of time to be the world-conqueror I’d hoped her already to be…” Report Card: B

4: The Walkmen & Grizzly Bear

The Walkmen (You & Me): “…the band, as usual, is pretty tight and on cue, and this album sees them expanding their oft-old-timey sound a bit, but, as usual, they rarely make the listener reflect with amazement on the awesomeness of their instrumental achievements…” Report Card: B-

Grizzly Bear (Two Weeks’ television debut): “…Two Weeks, a sparkling if simple track, is cloaked in reverb and is guaranteed to sound better on the fifth listen than it did on the first…” Report Card: A

3: Au & Pyramids

Au (Verbs): “…some of it sounds like little more than a bunch of people tuning their instruments or screwing off pre-rehearsal, but when the noises this flock of musicians creates come together into a song, the results can be pretty damn pleasing…” Report Card: B

Pyramids (Pyramids): “…although Pyramids aren’t likely to find themselves on the cover of Spin magazine anytime soon (hell, they hardly turn up on a Google search), they have potential, and with a broadening of their sound they should start to make themselves the first ‘Pyramids’ band you think of, rather than the fourth…” Report Card: C+

2: White Denim & Black Kids

White Denim (Workout Holiday): “…this garage-y business gets down to the brass tacks of dirty rock, with sloppy and simple construction and frequent breakdowns, and it’s not unlikely that your first listen will seem a bit pale for all the praise.  But when it comes down to it, this is some very, very good stuff, and once it gets its energetic claws into you, you’ll have a hard time taking it off the iPod…” Report Card: A-

Black Kids (Partie Traumatic): “…While this is an album with lovely songs for a club rotation, for any other of the myriad purposes for listening to music—such as passing the time while driving on I-35 during rush hour—chances are that the absolute lack of irony will wear thin quite quickly…” Report Card: C

1: Beck & The Fiery Furnaces & Ponytail

Beck (Modern Guilt): “…despite the skepticism—fueled by his diminishing live performance as he nears forty—sure enough, like most all Beck releases, Modern Guilt gets its claws into you, and after a tepid first few listens, it starts to hold together quite well as a collection…” Report Card: B

The Fiery Furnaces (Remember): “…put very simply: if you’re not already a fan of Fiery Furnaces, this release will just solidify your disgust for them.  But if you’re already a fan of Fiery Furnaces, you’ll probably just wish they would’ve found some not-so-shitty recording equipment for this ambitious project…” Report Card: C

Ponytail (Ice Cream Spiritual): “…despite the occasionally awesome interplay between these ‘instruments,’ this is an album that’s going to be hard-pressed to survive multiple spins in a row without becoming a burden on sensitive ears…” Report Card: B-

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Because I Can’t Not Comment: The Issue 1 Controversy

A few fine links regarding the ridiculous search engine exploding Issue 1, a “poetic” experiment gone terribly, terribly right:

  • That notorious crab-ass and postmodern proliferator, Ron Silliman, on the issue.  Somewhat surprising he wouldn’t laud the experiment, isn’t it?
  • How it became so viciously viral, while also commenting on the closet narcissism of poets.  Surely, there’s an element of the embarrassing here; i.e. if you didn’t have Google Alerts before, you do now.
  • K. Silem Mohammed ironically noting the three possible irritable responses to Issue 1.
  • Even the Poetry Foundation has contributed to the uproar, which is surprising considering they usually keep some distance from such tawdry affairs.
  • Not soon enough, here’s some clarification by the project’s true “authors,” who surely had no idea the extent of the pleasant mess they made.
  • And, here, for those of you who absolutely, positively, despise this sort of stuff.

Lastly, for no reason whatsoever, here’s “my” poem as it appeared on page 206:

Writing decrees like creation

The things show the uncomfortable
…….. matters of splay matters about its
……………… grief
With most hooked salvation they post
…….. redemption and eider
Are they robust?

They are warm
Out here there
…….. are hills

Timid as a decree, bold as
…….. a victory
They spring in malice
They have no remorse
That morning is theirs, pillows,
…….. sizes, souls, the fearing letters

Thing wishes in their ardent affair
They are too
…….. wild-eyed; the simultaneous mist sends their
……………… dust

The Nature of Publication: The Morals of Submission

Note: Many of you have read my post “The Nature of Publication: Poetry in Literary Journals,” but I wanted to change gears a bit here and offer some thoughts on the act of submission itself, and whether it’s really the “right” thing to do.

A chronic moral issue I’ve debated regularly since my early days in an MFA program is whether it inherently compromises artistic integrity to proffer yourself at the feet of literary journals. There’s no doubt that to engage in the act of submission is to engage in not only a certain tedium—research a journal, develop and specialize your cover letter, conscientiously select poems that may be of interest to that journal, print those poems, label and stamp envelopes, fold SASE, fold poems and cover letter, insert in envelope, et cetera, et cetera—but also to contend with the troubling notion that the legitimacy or profitability of your blood, sweat, and tears is somehow contingent on the acceptance of others. While an argument can be made that it is just fine and dandy, as well as wise, to seek the adoration of the literary community, I haven’t been able to shake the nagging feeling that a steroided Salingerian or Dickinsonesque policy of non-sharing would ultimately result in a heightened karmic reward. But has this nagging feeling led me to discontinue the religious act of submitting? Of course not.

As someone who’s worked for literary journals, and has worked to get into them, I respect the symbiotic relationship between the two; still, I have to laugh at myself when people ask how my poems get into journals, as I always slip and use some form of the word “submit.” After all, to many people “submission” implies a sort of prostration, and it’s at least a little embarrassing to embrace that branding of the journal/writer relationship. The justification for that relationship arrangement is plain-as-day: the literary journal is a respected medium for the advancement of a writer’s career, not to mention ego, while the journal has the benefit of the needy multitudes on its side, even if those multitudes don’t often enough fill out a subscription card. All these matters of definition and clarification aside, a particular struggle arrives for the writer who so disdains the notion of self-promotion that it keeps her up at night, only she knows that in regards to eventual tenure (especially without a doctoral degree), the path of least resistance is to get as published as possible, and to do so as quickly as possible.

Writing, unfortunately, is a bear which wears on its foot the steel trap of narcissism. It seems there is little way around this, regardless of whether you claim to write for the good of yourself, for the good of the world, or for any other purpose—after all, the solitary exercise of writing is a workout, and its results are only to the untrained eye less visible than time spent in the gym. Too often the humanity of composition is forgotten, as when the act of writing or of being a writer is seen as some sort of angelic feat, and not the product of diligently sitting still.

Personally, I write because I love writing, and I can’t imagine not writing. But beyond the act of creation, how have I gotten around that little, unpleasant feeling in my gut when I submit to literary journals, that feeling that I’m in some way doing something wrong or selfish or less admirable than waiting until death for heaps of my compositions to be “discovered”? After struggling with this question for years, and suffering the occasional bout of compromise, I think I’ve come to at least a partial conclusion: firstly, to compose a poem or story with the intention of getting it into a journal is an ugly endeavor, and should be avoided—in other words, I’d offer that as long as the “submission” occurs after creation, and not before, it’s all good. Secondly—and perhaps just as importantly—it’s a good habit never, ever to submit to a journal you don’t read, respect, appreciate, and would be truly honored to have accept your work.

What do you think? Does submission take the pure joy out of your creation?  Is it foolish to write and expect appreciation without submitting to journals?  Is there any way to avoid narcissism when engaging in a creative act?  And, here’s a big one: is posthumous glory more worthwhile than earthly recognition?

The Nature of Publication: Poetry in Literary Journals

This thingy here is mostly me thinking aloud (but not really aloud, now) about the nature of poetry publication in literary journals, and how the tendency to publish “one-off” poems rather than poems that are part of a bigger project, as well as the tendency to publish single poems rather than multiple poems by a single poet, is acting to undermine both poets and the journals who love them. Sure, this notion has arisen because of the my own publishing experiences; after all, continuing is the utterly disturbing trend of poems I consider “substandard” or “not-aligned-with-my-greater-projects” being published, while poems I believe are of greater substance wallow in unpublished nothingness. And although I take the blame for most of these occurrences, I think the aforementioned way journals go about filling their poetry-dedicated pages is not to be underestimated as a cause of the problem.

As for poems that are part of a larger sequence or project, I think the easiest explanation is that because the poems that comprise larger projects are, in fact, part of something larger, they are therefore prone to being less capable of standing alone. Yet I believe a more complicated explanation is that the themes of “project poems” tend to be more complex, or drawn out, or contextually-oriented to the project’s bigger picture, whereas the “one-off poems” are usually simple little ditties with a bite-size idea. They are pop songs.

But it’s frustrating nonetheless, because poets focused on publishing a book are more inclined to write albums than singles. But literary reviews really love their singles, and this is due in large part to their nasty propensity of publishing “poems” rather than “poets,” which results in a journal dedicating, say, fifty pages to poetry that features 46 lyric poems by 42 different poets. It’d be much better, in my opinion, if journals aimed to publish a poetic vision rather than just a lyric they happen to enjoy—this way a reader can recognize a poet’s identity, rather than getting maybe thirty lines and a significant likelihood of forgetting the poet’s name. It’s like getting a mix tape: yeah, you love the variety, but you probably aren’t going to constantly check the tracklist to see who you’re listening to.

So how about this: fifty pages, ten poets. Yes, that means everyone’s cover letter inevitably looks a lot less impressive, but there are several obvious benefits to be had, both for the journal and for the writer. First of all—and this seems funny to even say—the writer might actually give a damn when the journal arrives in the mail. And not because he or she would get to drool over more pages of his or her own work, but because it would be more interesting to see what other poets in the journal have to offer; you’d actually have the opportunity to develop a relationship with a companion poet’s work over the course of several poems. You’d also be pretty safe to assume that the editors were looking for cohesion in the issue, so it would help you reflect more thoroughly on your own work and its place in that particular issue, and the journal’s aesthetic as a whole.

Secondly, the personal relationship between a journal and a poet would be enhanced, because it takes a substantial commitment on both sides to make fifty pages/ten poets happen. It’s a commitment on the part of the journal not only because they are giving up more pages to each poet, but they also are relinquishing the habit of publishing “singles.” It would require a heightened degree of journalistic confidence in a writer’s vision, which would mean that they would be publishing probably at least a couple of a poet’s poems that they are only “iffy” on; but they would do this because those “iffy” poems are part of the vision, and offer the pros and cons of a bigger picture. It would also make an individual poet more likely to support the journal in the future, because publication would be more of an event and less of a “whatever.” As for the poet, the commitment is huge—to give multiple poems to one journal means that those poems are not going to be published elsewhere. It really is putting a lot of eggs in one basket, but the hope is that that basket will actually garner more exposure, because rather than being one easily-skippable page in three different journals, with two of the poems never being accepted for publication, you have five hard-to-ignore pages in one journal.

Of the more than 180 poetry-publishing journals with which I am familiar, no more than ten truly operate in this “poets-rather-than-poems” manner. The most notable of these is probably The Missouri Review, which has a long-standing history of pushing poets to the next level; after all, if you can say that you were published in The Missouri Review, you are saying that you were a featured poet who can offer not only flashes of lyric brilliance, but a consistent strength and unity of vision. But, to be honest, it is difficult to submit to this journal—they ask for 12-20 pages of poetry, and that’s a hell of a lot to put out there, even if they only take five or six pages. And surely, if every journal worked like this, it would be far more difficult to manage simultaneous submissions, as the clerical end of the deal would get to be very challenging. But ultimately, the relationship between journal and poet would be amplified, and the poet would be given more of an opportunity to become stylistically recognizable—especially to the casual journal reader who only has one or maybe two subscriptions (or, more likely, none), rather than forty; and this chance to have breadth revealed must be better than being just another insignificant name on a long list of one-offs.

Music Column: Radiohead’s Nasty Habits

You’ve probably been bludgeoned to miserable death via hype on this one. Who knows, maybe you even sat motionless and glassy-eyed at your computer, click-clicking your way through the purchase and download process, battling all the while against ever-threatening website overload. Gasp! There’s no way in god’s green Great Britain that you could pay as much as you want for the new record, is there? Well, yes sir, there is.Radiohead, the mystery marvels who somehow bridge the gap between the masses and the song-snobs, yesterday released their new album, In Rainbows, sans record deal—and all the production costs and industry bigwig coffer-stuffing that go along with it. Available for download on a bare-bones website in classic Radiohead styling, the new album splashed onto the scene in a flurry of excitement unabashedly not limited to the music itself. In fact, it’s quite possible that the buzz around their distribution method has made the songs themselves almost afterthoughts.

The revolutionary direct-to-fan approach bypasses the middle man and allows the band to connect to their listeners in a “but how much do you really love me” sort of way. But unlike in the world of paranoid teenage lovers, in the music industry you have to be hugely famous and have some serious balls to get away with stuff like this. By shirking the record label, In Rainbows signals yet another death knell for the industry-as-it-was, a faceless monolith best known for filing lawsuits against thirteen-year-olds and coercing fresh-faced bands into trading in those nasty little sound experiments for some good old fashioned three-chord radio-readies. And when a major label moneymaker like Radiohead goes all turncoat on the evil empires, it’s clear that the future is indeed upon us.

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