Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Live: Deerhoof & Xiu Xiu (a really long time ago)

Alright, time to get the blood flowing again. Here's an old review I never ran of a live show that happened a long time ago but is still worth writing about.

When: July something
Where: Williamsburg Waterfront

Even thought of someone covering Unknown Pleasures makes me seethe. It's my favorite album ever of all time and anyone who thinks they are worthy of going NEAR it has as good as committed blasphemy in my mind. Part of me knows Ian Curtis was just a guy and deifying Joy Division is not exactly rational. But still, on an emotional level, Unknown Pleasures is sacred ground to me, and it's off limits for any mortal.

But, if I were going to pick two bands worthy of attempting to cover the album, Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof would surely not be far down the list. Two of the boldest, most innovative and most sincere bands to emerge in the last decade, Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof might have earned their chance to attempt this show. In some ways, that just raised the stakes, though, because if these bands couldn't pull of the seemingly impossible, it might ruin both for me forever.

But as soon as they started playing, my doubt melted away. The first notes switched on a magnet that pulled me towards the stage with a force I couldn't resist. The album opens with my single favorite song of all time, "Disorder." And as the harshest critic you could probably find, I have to say, they pulled it off.

Throughout the show, the band did justice to Joy Division's first masterpiece. Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart certainly embraces the spirit of Ian Curtis in his work, but he doesn't imitate him. Stewart's link to Curtis is not a put-on; he's genuinely a messed up individual with nervous, despairing, captivating energy. He constantly seems on the verge of breaking. That feeling of sickening tension is exactly what makes Joy Division such a riveting listen. It's a hard thing to capture genuinely, and most bands who try (Interpol, Crystal Stilts) come off (to me) as glorified cover bands.

The backing instruments matched Stewart's emotional, edgy performance, staying true to the spirit of the music and not rewriting anything. But despite their loyalty to the structure of each song, they did make the music their own, draping the skeleton of each track with their own layers of noise and sonic experimentation. Some songs, like "Disorder," stayed close to the original on every level, while at other times (e.g. "Day of the Lords," "New Dawn Fades"), the musicians on stage filled in their own interpretation of the original clouds of sound that fill the album.

Unknown Pleasures speaks to me in a way no other album ever has. Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof's performance didn't come close to that level of affecting, but their performance was still powerful and heartfelt. I never thought I'd admit anyone was worthy of playing a show like this but I have to say, it was a great concert that only increased my love for both these bands and for the original album as well.

By the way, Fang Island and Why? opened. Fang Island is a lot of guys playing crazy-ass guitar stuff, some hybrid of post-rock and metal. On each song, the guitars and synth built on one another to make a huge, heavy and surprisingly emotive sound. At times, the band seemed to tug at the heartstrings a little too much - the drama because an overdone trick. But overall, the complex, intertwining lines of guitars and synth were a good listen and the anthemic, booming songs rocked for real. Not really thing I'd write home about, but definitely a talented and enjoyable band.

Why? is pretty rad. Straddling indie rap and indie rock, the band uses big, open hip-hop beats and rhythmic vocals, but with a good deal of singing and rock instrumentation. I was surprised by the number of people in the touring band the extent to which Why?'s sound was created live, rather than with samples and electronics as with most rap acts. To be totally honest, all those musicians kind of made the band less cool. Vocalist Yoni Wolfe's brother Josiah on drums is pretty amazing to watch: he's added a vibraphone (essentially a metal xylophone) to the standard kit, and it's got to take tremendous skill to play melodies on that while also taking care of all the drumming. Yoni Wolfe himself is fun to watch. His songs are humorous and clever but with passion and a fair amount of self-deprecation. His live performance lived up to (but did not surprise) his recorded work - emotional, honest and smart. Still, I wouldn't say seeing Why? live is essential for casual fans. It's just about what you'd expect.

Monday, February 7, 2011

In Defense of the Black Eyed Peas

I would not have guessed in a million years that it would be the Black Eyed Peas that would inspire me to start blogging again. But here goes.

After last night's appalling superbowl halftime performance, the Peas have been getting a lot of flack. But before you jump on the bandwagon, how about giving the Peas the benefit of the doubt?

It's a music snob's most innate instinct to scoff at any Top-40 puke like the Peas, but a music snob also knows that the general population is usually going to have pretty poor taste in music (the lowest common denominator) and in fact, the music snob's very identity is dependent on that fact. Accept it - horrible music is going to exist for mass consumption as long as there's any money to be made in the music industry. And occasionally, no matter how much we try, we are going to have to hear some of it - even if just when pulling off our noise-canceling headphones to hear what the pharmacy cashier is trying to tell us. Ranting against the existence of such music is like ranting against the existence of the gravity. No matter what you say, it's not going to stop.

So granted, there's going to be bad music that is consumed en masse, mostly by impressionable young people. Currently, the best charting group in the country is the cast of Glee. In a decade that started with Britney Spears and 'N Sync and ended with Katy Perry and Glee, the 2000's were certainly a dark time for mainstream pop. In this universe of high-grossing crap, I will support the lesser of the evils, not because I enjoy listening to any of it, but because if kids are going to insist on listening to crap, I'd rather it be Black Eyed Peas than Katy Perry or the cast of Glee any day.

First of all, Black Eyed Peas are self-made. True, they're heavily produced, but they did start as a group of b-boys from the hood and they frequently demonstrate how close they hold their b-boy roots to the heart of their current identity as megastars. The Peas still write their own material and write it collectively as a group. Many pop stars are simply instruments - good looking faces with decent voices, programmed to wail out "songs" their producers, managers and labels made in five minutes using a tried and tested Top 40 template. That's not to say the Peas aren't formulaic and that their songs don't sound the same as one another and as everything else on mainstream radio - but at least the members of the band are smart enough to use the formula themselves. Like it or not, the Peas are musicians, at least compared to packaged products like Justin Timberlake and the Jonas Brothers.

Moreover, the Peas seem to be at least loosely aware of their sociohistorical context and they do have a message. Not really in their lyrics, but in their general existence, in their interviews and how they present themselves. The message is pretty stupid: "let's all have a party and get along with each other." But at least it's a message, and a socially responsible one at that. Compare that to the ambiguously homophobic messages of "artists" like Katy Perry or the anti-messages of stars like Kelly Clarkson, Timberlake or Spears.

On the other side of the coin, the Peas are willing to embrace and epitomize the worst of pop as evidenced by their hit single "My Humps." "My Humps" is spectacularly bad, in fact called "transcendentally bad" by Slate. How many pop stars have made something that can truthfully called "transcendental" in any sense in the last 10 or 20 years? Blatantly sexual in content and yet profoundly unsexy, "My Humps" is one of the single worst songs in human history. And that's what I admire about the Peas - they have reached an extreme. The song renders all discussion of meaning and pop-music-as-art a colossal joke. It's the same thing that made T-Rex and MGMT great, but pushed to an even worse extreme: the creation of pop music that's intentionally pure garbage, meant to be consumed and discarded. No matter the Peas intentions with the song, its success in itself serves as a much-needed mocking critique of contemporary pop.

To put in another way, if you're going to make horrible, meritless pop music, go all the way. Don't hold back. Strip every hint of merit out of your music. And sell it for millions of dollars. That's called gaming the system and it's bad-ass and worthy of serious props.

"My Humps" is the ultimate guilty pleasure song. It's the ultimate statement of an era of 30 second fame and flash-in-the-pan pop shit, the ultimate reduction of decades of increasingly blatant, tawdry, artless lyrics. Say what you will, but no group has had the inspiration or balls to make quite such a indisputably, unmistakably BAD song, possibly ever. At least not that's had the bullshitting skill to bring it to the Top 10 Chart.

As for the Superbowl performance itself, it was unlistenable. But the issue was entirely with the mix. The backing track was barely audible, leaving the vocals naked. Some of the singing, granted, was not great, but given how bad the sound quality was on broadcast, it's hard to imagine how much worse it undoubtedly sounded in the stadium. Although I'm sure the Peas were wearing ear pieces, I'm also sure that didn't completely solve the problem that the music was entirely inaudible. Performing in a huge sports arena is a hellish challenge, acoustically. Performing on live TV is just as hellish and neither are helped by an audience who isn't actually there to hear you perform.

Yes, I would rather be repeatedly run over by a bus than have to listen to a Black Eyed Peas album, but so much better them than so many of the megastar options for the show. The trainwreck that was their halftime set was the fault of phenomenally incompetent mixing and I say props to the group for continuing to sing and dance with full enthusiasm even knowing how bad they sounded (although they likely didn't know exactly how bad they sounded until after the show). It's a tough gig, probably one of the toughest a band could face and even for a band as seasoned as the Peas now are, it's got to a difficult task.

There's no way the band can be faulted for the unbelievably awful mixing. They can only be faulted for making throw-away pop, and fault them all you like, but if you had the opportunity and the talent to make millions selling something you basically pulled out of your ass, wouldn't you do it?