Writing about World Music

Section X, Fall 2016

Author: jophillips

Shoegaze and it’s Restricted Nature

I’m going to use this blog post to talk about shoegaze, a genre brought up in class which it seemed most were unfamiliar with.  Shoegaze is a genre that I personally find interesting since the foundation of the genre is built upon the legacy and quality of only three albums: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Slowdive’s Souvlaki, and Ride’s Nowhere, in order of decreasing influence and notability.  It is simply unavoidable for any shoegaze release to not be compared with these albums, as they set the baseline for their three variations of shoegaze: Loveless being the more noisy, Slowdive being the more dreamy and melancholy, and Nowhere being the most poppy of the three.

Most of you are probably wondering what shoegaze actually is, understandably, as the name of the genre really gives nothing away about its sound.  To put it best, shoegaze is a fusion of noise rock and dream pop, which may not mean much to people who don’t memorize overly-specific genres like myself.  Noise rock is an evolution of rock which incorporates more dissonant, loud, and powerful noises than typical rock, the most notable examples being Daydream Nation, White Light/White Heat, and Filth.  Dream pop is vocals-oriented like regular pop, but generally the vocalists have higher voices, and their backdrops are lush, creating songs where the songs have aerial qualities, the most notable group being the Cocteau Twins.  Combine both noise rock and dream pop, and you get shoegaze, which has heavily distorted guitar playing and other noisy elements creating a wall of sound, while someone sings in dream poppy vocals over (or beneath, frequently contributing to the wall of sound) it.  The term shoegaze came from a critique of a live My Bloody Valentine performance where the critic noted that the band had nearly no stage presence and just “gazed at their shoes” the entire time.

The origins of the genre primarily come from noise pop band, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and their album Psychocandy, which popularized the idea of dreamy vocals over harsh noise.  From there, My Bloody Valentine took up the helm of shoegaze, releasing a string of successful EP’s, along with their album Isn’t Anything, which in retrospect has been regarded as shoegaze despite coming before Loveless, which is really the album which founded the genre.  Slowdive pushed the creation of shoegaze just as early, and nearly as much as My Bloody Valentine, releasing their album Just For a Day in 1991, the same year as Loveless.  It is their album Souvlaki which is generally regarded as one of the most foundational in shoegaze however, due to its successful blend of dreamy vocals, and ambient, mellow guitars to create a highly melancholy album in contrast with Loveless’s more forceful bliss.

One of the most interesting aspects of shoegaze to me is how apparently small the variation in the genre has been, with seemingly every notable shoegaze band being heavily influenced by Loveless and Souvlaki (and to a lesser extent Nowhere), despite being a genre more than 20 years old.  That is not to say that the genre is bland or bad aside from its 3 foundational albums, the bar Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, and Ride set in the early 90’s has just proved critically insurmountable, as many regard Loveless as one of the greatest albums of all time with Souvlaki not too far behind.  Recently there has been a “shoegaze revival,” so with any luck there will finally be one more album affixed in the shoegaze canon.

Death Grips and Their Appeal

If someone were asked about the best hip hop artists of this decade, many would probably say Kanye, Kendrick, or Danny Brown, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, I’d have to agree Kendrick as well.  However, I’d like to make the case for Death Grips to be included in the conversation.  For those who have not heard of them, Death Grips is an experimental hip hop trio out of Sacramento known for their boundary-pushing and abrasive music, and also the cult following they have built by releasing much of their music for free and cryptically posting on Twitter and Facebook.

I could care less about the cult following they have built up, but I am always amazed by how their popularity always seems to be expanding in spite of being a relatively difficult band to get into: some of their most well-liked songs include this and this.  For someone who has been into their music for multiple years it was especially surprising to see them trending on Facebook after releasing a song with Les Claypool of Primus.  It’s not as if they’re particularly nice to their fan base either, notably having just not shown up to many shows they were scheduled for, lying that the band was going to end in summer 2014, and also forcing their fan base to wait more than half a year for the release of the second part of their double album “The Powers That B.”  Instead of gaining fans by being nice to them, they have gained them by constantly hanging them in suspense, leaving people on the internet to band together and overanalyze any cryptic messages posted by the band on Twitter.  In the case of “The Powers That B,” fans were attempting to guess the release of the second disc for months (or even if there would be a second disc since the band claimed they had broken up) until 2 weeks before the release someone posted a picture on Twitter of them wearing a dress with the face of Death Grips’ vocalist, Ride, and the band replied to the person’s tweet with the release date.  The way Death Grips market themselves is not only a unique form only possible in the 21st century, but also exceedingly successful.

Aside from their obvious mastery of the internet as a marketing tool, Death Grips are greatly talented musically.  Even though many people might find Death Grips off putting at first if they aren’t used to aggression and hecticness in music, I don’t think many of them could deny that the band has a completely different aesthetic to the standard people are used to.  That is what initially drove me to listen to them: the screaming may have been intimidating at first, the uniquity is what spurred me to keep listening, and I would highly recommend others to do the same.  If anyone is interested, I would listen to their album “The Money Store” and the second side of “The Powers That B,” “Jenny Death” to start.

Hendrix at Monterey

After watching the recording of Shankar’s performance in class, and enjoying the cinematography along with the music itself, I decided to watch some of Hendrix’s performance of “Wild Thing” and his cover of “Like A Rolling Stone” from the same documentary.  His performance of “Wild Thing” is one of his more notable as it was the origin for the famous picture of him lighting his guitar on fire and beckoning the flames to rise.  Just as striking as the burning of the guitar to me, is the opening minute where Hendrix is using feedback from his amp musically.  Not only is it strange to see someone using feedback so skillfully in a live setting, but the way Hendrix will contort and jerk his body along with his guitar creating parallel contortions and jerks in the feedback nearly seems spiritual and is incredibly charismatic.  When he finally stops using the feedback, it is in a triumphant fashion, emerging from the ominous droning that had just occurred with the powerful hook of the song.  Another thing I noticed is how towards the end of the performance, Hendrix seems to treat his guitar like a sexual object: He starts to thrust it into the amp to create relatively harsh noises, and then lies it on the ground, plucking the strings and gyrating his body along to the vibrations.  It is these sexual actions, though, which seem to lead him to his destroying of the guitar.

hendrix

Despite the similarities between Ravi Shankar and Jimi Hendrix in that they are both apparently masters of their instruments and styles, and both have heavy improvisation in their music, their performances are highly disparate.  Hendrix clearly has more showmanship in his performance than Shankar: he sways his body around while playing, plays his guitar behind his back, and unforgettably lights his guitar on fire and smashes it.  Shankar, on the other hand, remains in the same place the entire time, will occasionally smile, and oftentimes appears strained from concentration.  The difference can be attributed to their difference in ontologies perhaps.  Hendrix was operating under the English and American rock ontologies which emphasized showmanship and extravagance in skilled instrumentalists like Hendrix, originating from rock and roll pioneers such as Elvis and Little Richard.  Shankar, however, was performing under his Northern Indian musical ontology; since the ontology emphasizes practice over performance, Shankar’s performance has less flare than Hendrix’s, yet demonstrates a comparable, if not even greater amount of technical skill.

Brian Eno and David Byrne’s Schizophonic Mimesis

In Feld’s essay on schizophonic mimesis he writes about Brian Eno and David Byrne briefly, two artists whose discographies I am fairly familiar with.  For those who don’t know either, David Byrne was the front-man for the new wave band Talking Heads, whose crazed singing would help propel the Talking Heads to international fame with such hits as “Psycho Killer.”  Brian Eno, on the other hand, is best known for his work as the producer for David Bowie’s “Low” and “Heroes,” Devo’s first album, and all the Talking Heads albums from 1978-1980.  That is not to say he had little success as a musician as well, as he was the keyboardist for Roxy Music for their first two albums, had a string of three excellent art rock albums, and also was a pioneer in the ambient genre.  Back to the main point, however, seeing Feld bring up both Eno and Byrne made me think about how both have taken part in schizophonic mimesis.

It seems fair to say that Eno and Byrne participated most in schizophonic mimesis when both were working together, notably on the albums “Fear of Music,” “Remain in Light,” and their collaboration album which Feld also mentions “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.”  “Fear of Music” was the Talking Heads’ third album and is produced by Eno.  Overall it stays relatively true to the Talking Heads’ previous jerky and jagged form, but it starts off with the song “I Zimbra”, which shows a heavy influence from Northwestern African music such as William Onyeabor and Fela Kuti.  Eno and the Talking Heads took the structure of these African songs with the ever present fast-paced bongos in the background, the chanted vocals, and funky guitar and made their own version.  The African influence mostly disappears for the rest of the album, though the bongos do return on the song “Life During Wartime.” Byrne had heard Kuti, Onyeabor, and other African artists’ music through recordings he came across in New York, and then worked with Eno to mimic the recordings, creating a song which clearly has non-western influences, but also distinctly was made by the Talking Heads.

Whereas “Fear of Music” only had one song which clearly demonstrated schizophonic mimesis, “Remain in Light” is almost an entire album of schizophonic mimesis.  7/8 tracks show some influence from African funk, and the only one which does not, “The Overload,” is literally an attempt by Talking Heads to sound like Joy Division without even having heard them.  Compared to their previous albums, the tracks on “Remain in Light” are longer and more drawn out, of similar lengths to the songs of African funk musicians.  The first three tracks on the album are similar to Fela Kuti songs in how a fast paced instrumental which consists of significant repetition is laid down for Byrne to sing over, frequently pausing in between his lines, and then more singers joining in for what serve as hooks.  In the penultimate song, “Listening Wind,” Byrne even tells a story of an African man, angered by the West’s influence on his town, sends an insidious package to an American man.

As Feld notes in his essay, Eno shows little issue with taking influence from the African music he hears, continuing the process of schizophonic mimesis.  When Eno pairs up with Byrne and the rest of the Talking Heads, he brings them in a similar direction, where there are no scruples shown with taking influence from non-Western music, resulting in the Talking Heads’ African influences showing up on the popular US charts.

Is Music the Only Art Form to Reach Everyone Directly?

Listening to the tracks provided with The Sardinian Chronicles, I was reminded of an idea expressed by the Russian avant-garde filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky that “the only art which reaches everyone directly is music,” and that for other art forms “if you are not in the midst of them, if you don’t experience them, they have only barriers surrounding them.”  The example he provides to back up his assertion is a poem which has been translated to another language: while some meaning to the poem is carried over in the translation, the meter and nuances of its original language are lost.

The question is raised: Is Tarkovsky right that music is the only art form which reaches everyone directly?  And if so, what is it that sets it apart from other art forms?  I think Tarkvosky is right in his thought that one must witness the art in person to truly connect with it, though I would disagree with his exception for music.  When looking at, watching, or listening to an art form in its non-intended way, whether that be through a reproduction of a painting, or a translation of poetry or of a film, something is lost.  Tarkovsky’s example of poetry is the most apparent way that the meaning and “soul” of art can be lost in translation: translate the poem, and you lose the emotion conveyed by the meter as well as any puns, alliterations, assonances, or consonances. But, don’t translate the poem and its words hold little meaning to a non-speaker of the language.  Think also of Michelangelo’s David.  Everyone is aware of what it is, and what it looks like, but to see it in person is certainly a more affecting experience than looking at it in a photograph.  In a photograph one is not able to feel the towering presence of David, or see how the light and shadows accentuate his features at every angle, or also the gathering of others looking up at the statue in awe.'David'_by_Michelangelo_JBU0001

However, I disagree with Tarkovsky that music is different from any other art in that is the only one to reach everyone directly.  I understand how Tarkovsky came to his conclusion though. The distribution of albums is certainly different from the distribution of copies of paintings in terms of preserving the artist’s vision; and most people still manage to be stricken by music regardless of their surroundings.  However, music is still directly influenced by where it’s made, and therefore, if you are not from an album’s origin place then its effect on you will always be limited compared to its effect on those from the music’s origin place.  Look no further than the music provided with The Sardinian Chronicles .  Most obviously, all vocals are in Italian, a language which I do not understand, so the meaning of the lyrics is lost.  Even with the book’s translation at hand, the effect is still not the same, just as in poetry.  Even in the case of instrumentals listening to the Sardinian accordion player on Track 12 alone in my dorm room cannot possibly be equivalent to listening to one in the middle of a fete’s festivities. Sardinian accordion music, from what I can tell, was made to be played at fetes and other lively gatherings, rather than listened to in a dark cramped space.

If anyone else has any thoughts on the matter, please discuss!

A Pink Flag

Hi, I’m Jonathan,  from Carrboro, North Carolina, the town right next to Chapel Hill.  I don’t play an instrument, but I listen to countless hours of music instead.  If someone asked me the time signature of a song I couldn’t tell them, but if someone asked me for a list of 90’s post-hardcore albums to listen to, or for some 50’s avant-garde jazz albums, I could give them what they want with relative ease. My music tastes are varied; I will listen to virtually anything, as seems to be said quite often, but I find that the albums I return to most are usually 90’s hip hop (Enter the Wu-TangAquemini,) 90’s indie (Daydream NationCrooked Rain, Crooked Rain ,) and 70’s/80’s post-punk (Pink FlagMarquee Moon, The Modern Dance.)

Despite the relatively large size of my album knowledge, a little over two years ago I was not involved with music in the slightest.  I had played the banjo for three years from 3rd grade to 7th grade, but regrettably, I quit playing out of a disdain for practice and a desire to join a middle school sports team.  Thus, for around 4 years of my life, music had little influence upon me.

During the same time I did not listen to any music; I was an angsty teenager struggling with both my identity and trying to find a way to differentiate myself from others.  In late 2013, still trying to solve my identity crisis, I read NPR’s list of the best albums of the year and decided to listen to Chance the Rapper’s “Acid Rap” since it had the most interesting cover of the bunch, marking the beginning of my love for music.  For the next six months I listened to “Acid Rap” daily, entranced by its colorful and lush beats, and Chance’s copious use of his “igh” ad-lib. Above all, though, I found Chance’s music strikingly different from what I was accustomed to, and by listening to it I felt like I was different from the rest of my peers; exactly the feeling I had been searching for.

However, I soon found out that Chance the Rapper was more popular than I had thought, and I lost the sense of uniquity, and even superiority, I felt from listening to his music.  The idea of being an outlier, and thus having better taste through listening to experimental and abstract music had already been planted in my mind, though, so I began a search for hip-hop as strange as it was unknown.  In my searches I found a collective of west coast rappers under the name Hellfyre Club, of which  Anderson .Paak was notably a member.  It was not .Paak who grabbed me, though, but instead abstract hip hop veteran Busdriver and his partners Milo, and Open Mike Eagle.  Luckily for me, all of them had just released new albums, so I had a wealth of new material to listen to, relative to the single mixtape I had devoted my attention to for the past 6 months.  Busdriver’s album “Perfect Hair,” in particular was unlike anything I had ever heard, with predominately electronic beats creating a glitchy, otherworldly background for Busdriver’s even more otherworldly voice to float over.  The strangeness of “Perfect Hair” alone did more than satisfy my desire to be different in what I listen to, even if I rarely ever talked to people about music.

One might think that if I wanted to stick out from the rest so badly I would telegraph my alternative music choices to everyone, but that was not the case.  Instead, I found no need to.  As my musical taste grew and became increasingly offbeat, my personality did as well.  Before becoming an avid listener of music I was quiet and was overly cautious in everything I said , due to a fear people might find me strange, or would not care for me.  Listening to Busdriver, an artist who makes his living not by toning down his weirdness, but by maintaining and even emphasizing his quirks, taught me to do likewise; resulting in me not only being happier with my friend group, but happier with myself.  Thus, I can say that music has made me a much happier individual than I once was, and I never intend to stop listening.