Category Archives: Music

Entries about playing, recording, performing, and listening to music

Thank You, Neil

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Somewhat unusually, I think, because it wasn’t a huge hit, the first album I heard from Rush was the debut, the only Rush record without a Neil Peart on the drums. My brother had it, and during those days, as young as I was, my brothers’ and my sister’s records just seemed to BE there. I had zero understanding about why they bought the records they bought, where and when they bought them, and how they got turned on to certain artists in the first place. But my brothers’ and sister’s record collections were my earliest music education. I got my pop education from my sister (The Monkees, The Beatles, The Supremes, The Mamas and the Papas, Herman’s Hermits), and I got my rock education from my brothers (Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Doors). And then the first Rush album made its way into my brother David’s collection. I was 10 years old. I remember, if not falling in love with it, liking it almost at first listen and listening to it repeatedly when I was with my brother. I think he had already, at 20, an apartment of his own. He was an adult and was listening to music for adults and whenever I would visit him, part of what we’d do would be to listen to music. This record was raw, energetic, and gutsy. Sure, a little like Zeppelin but distinct enough to make it seem new and original to me. Almost simultaneously, I think, I had grade school buddies whose older siblings were playing in rock bands, and when invited to listen to them rehearse, I heard for the first time young musicians covering “Working Man” and “What You’re Doing” from that first Rush album. A glorious confluence of experiences that ultimately and magically transformed my little brain into the brain of a musician.

It was about this time in my life, as I began to blossom as an avid music listener, when my Dad started to allow me to order records from his Columbia House record club. I had officially caught the record collecting bug. Eventually, becoming too impatient to wait for the package in the mail and having the first money of my own in the form of a weekly allowance, I started making the foray to the local record shop within walking distance of my suburban home. I know with some certainty that the first record I ever bought with my own money was Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and then, shortly after that, not Rush’s second album, but their third, Caress of Steel. It was the first Rush album I bought with my own money. I was a junior high kid by then, maybe 12 years old, and I was listening to Neil Peart’s drumming for the first time.

I had been drumming already for awhile. I think I got my first drum kit when I was in the sixth grade. It was cheap and shitty, but I played enough and listened carefully enough that in pretty short order I was playing along to a lot of my favorite records. I could play along to almost any Kiss song, not expertly, but passably. The most challenging thing Peter Criss ever did was probably the “Detroit Rock City” groove and I’m pretty sure it would be awhile before I could pull that off, but even as a 12 year old I could tell you that there was nothing especially inventive or interesting about the drum solo on Kiss Alive. It was boring and pedestrian–but for a 12 year old behind his first drum kit, it was super exciting (if not easy) to ape.  This drumming on Rush’s Caress of Steel was a different thing altogether. There were breaks. There were odd time signatures. This was a really big drum set, maybe the first double-bass drum kit I had ever seen. Here was a song that was 13 minutes long or 20 minutes long. There were dynamics. And there were these fills that just seemed superhuman. And Peart’s lyrics: they fueled my young imagination unlike anything I had ever read in school and unlike any other song lyrics I had ever heard. So listening to Neil Peart was doing some magical stuff to my pre-teen brain–not only was it turning me into a more sophisticated listener and exponentially raising the bar for me of what great drumming was about, but it was pushing my literacy forward. As a twelve year old, I began writing what I thought was serious fiction. I wrote a novel inspired by a song on Caress of Steel called The Necromancer! I think I still have that thing in a box somewhere in the basement. I’m sure it’s terrible, but whatever inspired a twelve year old boy to handwrite hundreds of pages of bad fiction must have been pretty great.

I fell a little out of love with Rush in the 80’s when I became consumed by the new wave movement, and in the 90’s I came to think of them, especially in the lyric department, as kind of a silly band. They were just too earnest, too serious, never ironic, kind of precious, and sometimes pedantic. But in the last five or six years, as the seminal records that were so much a part of my growing up turn 40 years old (2112, A Farewell to Kings, and Hemispheres), I’ve started listening again. I’ve come full circle. The things I was critical about become the things I most admire and respect about them. They’re great sounding, exciting records. I don’t listen to them every week or even every month, but when I do revisit these records several times over the course of a year, and as a result of learning about Neil Peart’s passing, all this past weekend, I rediscover their greatness and am reminded that, even though there have been other musicians whose music has better withstood the test of time for me, Neil Peart’s drumming and writing, more than any other musical figure, had a most monumental influence on my life.

Thank you, Neil.

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New Year Tradition? A New Way to Experience Music? 2020!

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Does this guy look ill? 

Section 1: A New Year Tradition?

I hope this does not become a New Year’s Tradition, but two years in a row now, I have been ill going into New Year’s Eve and absolutely down for the count on the first day of the new year. Coupled with that has been a tradition that I hope will continue, but please, without the illness: I’ve had a drumming gig two New Year’s Eves in a row now with a cover band I’ve played with for a couple of years. It’s a great experience and a coveted one to have good gig New Year’s Eve and a total honor to play with musicians that I sincerely want to share the experience with, but being super sick and needing to play the drums for two to three hours, suppressing coughing fits, sweating through the aches and pains in the body, trying to remember through the fatigue how the parts go, how these wooden things in my hands work, hoping that I don’t pass out, sneeze, or throw up–these things do not make for the drummer an enjoyable performance experience! Needless to say, I survived the gig and played most all of my parts correctly, and, except maybe noticing a little less than usual animation behind the drum kit, no one save my bandmates were aware of the compromise. But Jesus, when I got home at nearly two in the morning, I felt like I had been hit by a train. When we’re in a bad way, we often say, hyperbolically, that we feel like we’re dying. When I got home in the first couple of hours of 2020, I felt, without exaggeration, like I was dying. Here I am on January 2, not fully recovered, but clearly, no longer dying, able to compose a blog essay, on the mend, as they say. But now my wife and my son both also have come down with a thing–which may or may not be my fault. So we are celebrating the New Year together all convalescing in various household compartments, taking turns being the nurse to the other sickos in the house.

I did learn a couple of things about drumming a show while sick, and, for some inexplicable reason, practiced this learning somewhat intuitively while I was playing. So for those of you who might need to do some sick drumming at some future date (not to be confused with “sick” drumming, which is always recommended), here’s what I did, and what you might keep in mind, to get through:

  • Don’t sing if you can help it. The back ups will not likely be missed. If you’re singing lead on one or two songs, skip ’em. If you’re the lead singer for a consistent part of the show, I’m so so very sorry. It will be the worst thing ever.
  • Don’t rock out like you usually do. Give almost a zen-like concentration on simply playing the parts–leave the physical showy stuff out.
  • Don’t take any deep breaths: promotes coughing fit.
  • Don’t laugh if someone on stage does something or says something funny: promotes coughing fit.
  • Generally speaking, keep your mouth shut and breathe through your nose in order to avoid a coughing fit. It might be useful to note that my condition at the time, not a flu per se, but a super nasty virus of some sort, was in my chest and my throat and not in my sinuses. I would not recommend keeping your mouth shut if you couldn’t breathe through your nose. No one likes a sick drummer, but people like dead drummers even less (I’m told).
  • Have water and hot tea both easily at your disposal. The tea quelled the urge to cough. The water prevented drying up and withering away.
  • Don’t consume any alcohol. It turns out my illnesses have paved the way for two completely dry New Year celebrations in a row!

I hope you have found the preceding helpful or at least somewhat interesting. I think it might be the first time in my entire blog history that I have given any kind of instruction about drumming. It may really be the only drumming instruction I have any kind of authority to give!

Section 2: A New Way To Experience Music? 

For the longest time, just as, in the beginning of the smart phone revolution, I resisted getting a smart phone, I have resisted subscribing to any music streaming service. I have thought of myself as a purist. If I was interested in a record, I would buy it. If I was really interested, I’d buy it on vinyl. If I wasn’t as sure, I’d buy a CD. If I was experimenting with something new or if I was low on music funds, I’d pay for and download the album from iTunes or the Emusic subscription service. My righteousness came from the twofold conviction (which I believe is borne out by evidence) that one, the quality of the streaming audio would be inferior to both vinyl and compact disc, and two, that streaming services paid little to nothing to artists. I first started evolving on the issue when a mastering engineer friend of mine told me about TIDAL, a high quality, hi-fidelity streaming service created by and curated by musicians. But this was three years ago. That ruminated for a long time. The next phase of the evolution of my thinking was brought on by the resident 14 year old. My son requested for Christmas a family plan subscription to Spotify.

After some research between TIDAL, Qobuz, and Spotify, I decided to appease the teenager and not the audiophile. I’m sure he’s happy, but it has already, in the two weeks or so of subscribing, revolutionized my music listening experience. For good or bad, I cannot say. On the good, I am honestly enjoying the service. No question. I have added to my library and listened several times from start to finish albums that I was curious about, albums that have been perpetually on a wish list, albums that, in physical form, are out of print and circulation, albums recommended to me by friends, and albums that were on everybody’s best of 2019 lists. So, in a very short time, I have been able to listen to and enjoy a number of new records that would have absolutely broke the bank had I acquired them in a record shop. And I haven’t paid a penny yet–it’s a three month trial!  And as most of the listening I have done has been at my computer desk through my powered Audioengine desktop speakers, through the Bose bluetooth, or in the car, the loss of audio quality has escaped me. And the bad?

There are no liner notes. No songwriting credits. Don’t know who the musicians are. Don’t know who produced, engineered, or mastered. Don’t know where it was recorded or mastered. There’s nothing to hold. There are no lyrics. There’s no art outside of a front jacket. Those are negatives.

And this: It’s an embarrassment of riches. It seems not right somehow to be able to listen to any album I want from start to finish from any artist I choose, over and over again, but I can. I can download albums as well, so that when I’m on the road without the mighty wi-fi I can still listen to my favorites. $14.99 a month. What’s wrong with that? And of course any young people reading this are just shaking their heads in disbelief. What is wrong with this guy? Clearly, in my defense, the artist benefits less, far less, from my patronage. The brick and mortar shop where I usually buy my records benefits not at all. And these last two, perhaps, are the negative aspects of streaming music services that give me the most pause.

Since the first section of this blog entry ended with a list, let’s follow up and conclude section 2 with another list. Here is some justification, some rationalization, some arguments about why my decision to subscribe to Spotify won’t ruin the music industry:

  • I will do my part to support musicians and local businesses by continuing to buy physical products, records and cd’s. Music Millennium has not seen the last of me!
  • Because the budget for such things has a limit, because I can’t buy everything that interests me, artists and albums that I may have NEVER heard I will get to hear! They won’t get their cut of a $20 to $30 ticket price for new vinyl, but they will get a couple of pennies every time I listen to a song. And I am what you might call a loyal listener. If I like a thing–I’m going to listen to it a bunch of times.
  • And, if I find myself liking a thing enough to listen to it a bunch of times and it becomes a favorite–at this point fidelity is an issue and I will buy the physical record.
  • Every once in a moon, I will buy a new album that does not (pet peeve of mine) include a digital download card. This can now be removed from my list of peeves. New ELO album didn’t have a download code? Spotify has it. Download it there. That seems doubly good for Jeff Lynne, and it sure beats paying $30 for a record, finding it without download card, and liking the record so much that you are compelled to purchase it AGAIN on iTunes so that you can travel with it!
  • Finally, as a person of a certain age who nevertheless still gets a huge thrill out of discovering new musical artists, the main benefit of Spotify might just be the new possibilities for discovery that await–totally on my own just plunking around–not to mention the completely untapped potential (of which I know the youth is totally down with) of it’s social networking and sharing possibilities. I understand that shared playlists are a big hit with the kids.     

This concludes the first blog entry of 2020. Recovering from illness. Sad that I did not fully enjoy New Year’s Eve as I would have liked, but full of gratitude for the opportunity to play and with these people–people who have become dear to me over the last couple of years. Again, disappointed that I did not accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish before heading back to work after winter break, but, again again, not surprised, and thankful to have been able to do what I’ve done–not the least of which–four gigs in two weeks time. Now that I can see better health right around the corner, and despite recent news events that scare the shit out of me, I am hopeful and optimistic about 2020. Whatever we need to do to make our communities, our cities, our country, or the world a better place, let’s do that. Music is a starting point. Amen.

 

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#340: Skylarking

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It’s 1986, the winter
after our wedding and we’re
living in a shack. Seriously,
I’m not a tall guy and I can
stand in the living room
and place my hands flat
on the ceiling. It’s the holiday
season and I’ve just bought
XTC’s “Skylarking,” which
I listen to from start to finish
over and over and over again,
sitting on our cheap-ass
rattan settee from Pier One
Imports, headphones blasting.
It’s cold outside but Andy sings
of Summer’s Cauldron, Colin sings
about adolescent sex, the birds
chirp and the keyboards thrum
and Super Supergirl comes on
and I’m on fire like I’ve never
been about how good a good
pop song can be in the hands
of master songwriters. And
Rundgren’s production, his
attempt to make them sound
American and their response
to sound more English than ever,
so perfectly wrong and beautiful.
The strings of 1,000 Umbrellas
sing to me under Andy’s
woeful lament of joyful misery
as The Season’s Cycle moves
round and round. Side two
finds me right where I am,
newly married, schooling
unfinished, worrying about
whether I can Earn Enough
For Us after our Big Wedding Day.
My mind blown by the
perfect fusion of rock,
jazz, and big idea in The Man
Who Sailed Around His Soul,
and finally, a pop song
gives me words to express
my budding atheism and I am
grateful beyond all account.
Poor and happy, hopeful,
this record gives me 14 songs
to sing for the rest of my life
and I am still singing them,
will keep singing them
in my Dying, while Colin
croons along in this great
Sacrificial Bonfire of existence.

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Educational Music Shopping: Why Did These Artists Win Grammys?

Okay, I know exactly why the Laurie Anderson/Kronos Quartet record won a Grammy: because it is awesome. But I wondered about the other winners, the ones that, of course, I had heard of (you’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard of them), but had never listened to. So, at Music Millennium a couple of weekends ago, the oldest independent record store in Portland, Oregon, and one of my favorite places on the planet, I did some record shopping, and in an unusual state of looking for nothing in particular, I decided in the end to buy albums from artists that, while having minimal interest in heretofore, won a Grammy, and thus earned the distinction of the I-should-probably-know-something-about-this-record award from yours truly. I bought two albums that weekend from such artists: “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” by Greta Van Fleet, and “By the Way, I Forgive You” by Brandi Carlile. It was actually a different album from Greta Van Fleet that had the honor of winning a Grammy, but this was their most recent thing and, I thought, should be most representative of what they’re doing presently. They won for Best Rock album, and Carlile won for Best Americana album.

Let’s talk about the rock. Greta Van Fleet are clearly superbly talented young musicians. There can be no doubt about that. They’re a tight band, each member obviously not just proficient but accomplished on his instrument. They’re all very handsome young dudes as well, and the fact that three of them are brothers ads a kind of irresistible adorability factor. They have all those things going for them. Again, I’m not listening to the record that earned them a Grammy, but the one immediately and closely after. Are the songs good? Yes, on the whole, the songs are good. Is this band Grammy worthy? I have a few concerns.

The buzz around Greta Van Fleet is that they are a 21st century Led Zeppelin. And at first listen, and second listen, and third, this comparison seems absolutely appropriate. The lead singer out Robert Plants Robert Plant. He’s probably more virtuosic than the original, but if at times while listening to this record you close your eyes (which is a very silly thing to say, as the music will sound the same whether your eyes are open or closed), you will think you are hearing a long lost but sonically superior Led Zeppelin song. It’s possible that this singer is just doing his own thing, and his own thing happens to sound like Robert Plant’s thing, but it’s also just as easy to conclude that this guy is deliberately aping the mighty 70’s hard rock singer. It’s that close. And because, stylistically speaking, everything about this record seems to be paying tribute to 70’s hard rock bands, it’s difficult to believe that these boys were not studying the Led Zeppelin catalogue while they were in their diapers. And when he doesn’t sound like Robert Plant, the singer sounds like Geddy Lee. And sometimes he sounds like Geddy Lee sounds like Robert Plant, you know, a là Rush’s debut record. And not only is his singing eerily similar to these two giants, but his lyrics seem also straight out of the “Misty Mountain Hop”/”Kashmir”/”Anthem”/”By-Tor and the Snow Dog” songbook. And I find them silly. Rush’s lyrics are also silly, but when I fell in love with them first I was in the seventh grade. I think this record would have been infinitely more interesting to me in the 7th grade. But while I’m listening and driving, I’m banging my head. I’m a 7th grader again.

I read that Alice Cooper also dubbed these guys the new Led Zeppelin, and said they were doing a tremendous service for guitar rock in the 21st century, and if you love the Zep and wish they were still making records, I suppose Greta Van Fleet will satisfy those desires. My feeling is, yes, that could be a very good thing, but their stuff is super derivative, not original or groundbreaking in the slightest, and, I guess, not very interesting to me outside of its rocky goodness (no small potatoes), and perhaps, if it were my decision, Greta Van Fleet would not be worthy of a Grammy.  Nevertheless, I like this record and will listen to it a bunch more times likely before I tire of it.

Let’s move on to the Americana. First of all, what the hell’s Americana music? I’ve only been hearing this term for the last six or seven years, have played with musicians who consider themselves playing in this genre, but I’m still not completely sure I know what it is. But apparently though, it’s so much a thing now so as to have its own category of awards at the Grammys. So let’s look it up, shall we? From wikipedia:

Americana is an amalgam of American music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the musical ethos of the United States, specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, gospel, and other external influences.

The definition on AmericanaMusic.org is super similar, but they’ve added this little nugget, which I find instructive, that while Americana draws from all these other genres, it results “in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.” What I find kind of funny about these definitions is that they seem to fit almost any musical outfit that is cross-pollinating genres. How “distinctively roots-oriented” could you get while playing around between six or seven different traditions–how could that be “a world apart”? I don’t have anything against artists and musicians who are not squarely in a particular camp, if fact, I admire that kind of thing, I’m just having difficulty deciding if Americana is an actual genre or whether it’s just a label we use when we can’t describe the genre but nevertheless decide that it feels genuinely American. Sidenote: listen to Elton John’s
“Madman Across the Water” and tell me that that record sounds British. I dare you.

So Brandi Carlile won the best album award in the category of Americana for “By the Way, I Forgive You”. What intrigues me about my response to this record is that, while it is a type of thing stylistically that I would be usually much less interested in than I would be in a record from, say, Greta Van Fleet, I like Carlile’s album a lot more than I like “Anthem of the Peaceful Army.”

At first, its decidedly country influence out of the gate puts me off some. Typically and with few exceptions, I do not favor country music. I especially do not like contemporary popular country music. Brandi Carlile’s voice is unabashedly a country sounding voice and the first tune on the album, “Every Time I Hear That Song,” seems to me an unabashedly country song. But she is none of the things I hate about country, and while I’m not a huge fan of that opening track, “The Joke” is something different altogether. This thing is an anthem. It’s got tremendous power, lyrically and musically. The first time I heard the song, I almost wept. In fact, in every subsequent listen, I can feel that tug. One of these times I think I’m going to have to let loose. It’s like the “We are the Champions,” the “Shout,” or the “We Are Young” of Americana. This is one thing that makes this album significantly different and better. Brandi Carlile is an ADULT and she’s writing very seriously about serious adult things; there’s no ice and snow in fairyland here (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And the music, if it’s intended to be roots oriented, seems to me at times much more sophisticated, more progressive. Check out that third tune, “Hold Out Your Hand,” a tune with a jaunty little bluegrass verse that busts into a kind of slamming, again anthemic, four on the floor stomp swing in the chorus and culminates in this shouty, chant-like spoken word thing, coupled with one of those nonsensical background vocal hooks worthy of The Beatles. And, country twang or no country twang, Carlile is a powerful and interesting singer.

Americana? I guess so. There’s country here, blue grass, folk, rock, etc. Rootsy? Okay, but there’s orchestration on this album as well, beautiful and lush string orchestration, and that don’t strike me as rootsy. She sounds like Elton John trying to sound like an American. Maybe “By the Way, I Forgive You” is an Americana record simply because it defies easy categorization. That’s okay. I’m easy. Is it Grammy worthy? I think if it can make a 54 year old man want to cry, sure. Give this record a Grammy.

Postscript Ramblings: I’m kind of jonesing to get back to my alphabet project, the game of listening to a single album by every artist represented in my compact disc collection in alphabetical order and then writing about it. I started this project years ago, only got half way through the letter H, and then stopped. Mostly it’s because I cannot stop buying new music and new music listening seems to always take precedent. And I’ve spent lots of time listening to “new” music by artists that I’ve already written about in the alphabet, namely, rediscovering the entire early catalog of Bowie and the entire entire catalog by Kate Bush. And I’ve been listening to a lot of vinyl. And I’ve been discovering, like I have above, other new things that have ere now been completely out of my wheelhouse: Solange, Childish Gambino, Anderson .Paak, Richard Hawley. I have to forgive myself for being distracted by so much good music pulling me away from the alphabet. I’ll get back to it some day, maybe someday soon. If this appeals to you, let me know.

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Michael Tests the Mic

So, I got a new USB microphone. It’s the Yeti Pro from Blue Designs, and it’s pretty much the inspiration for this, the first blog entry I’ve made since July. Sorry that I’ve been so long away. I hope you missed me just a little. I decided to shoot a video and I talk here extemporaneously about microphones, about the new school year, the meaning of the word penultimate, drumming in a 80’s cover band called The Nu Wavers, and bizarrely, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas in September. If you’re wondering about the location, I’m in the trailer, but I’m not camping. It’s a weekday night, the kitchen’s torn apart, my study is a mess, and I’m retreating to the T@B 400 to test the mic. Enjoy.

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#309: My Morrissey is Getting Better

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All day I had Morrissey’s voice in my head
after 5 albums worth of The Queen is Dead,
the original album and eight sides of bonus
and the lyrics to the song “I Know It’s
Over” percolating and reverberating everywhere
and again; it was almost too much to bear.
I walked up and down hallways today, alone
in my classroom doing my best imitative moan:

I know it’s over but still I cling
I don’t know where else I can go–over, over.

and

It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate;
It takes guts to be gentle and kind–over over.

and

Love is natural and real
but not for you my love,
Not tonight, my love

It was a fun song to sing in a room, empty
and resonant and I knew my Morrissey
was getting better and better far and away
and that’s the most productive thing I did today.

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Concert Review Confessions: St. Vincent at the Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon, January 20.

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In part because I have listened to all five St. Vincent albums over recent days in preparation for the live appearance this last weekend here in Portland, I have made no new progress on the H section of my CD collection, on my alphabetical listening and blogging project that seems to go on forever. Instead, I’ve prepared this little confessional.

I love St. Vincent, Annie Clark’s rock project of the last 10 years. I love her music, but I’m also a little bit in love with her. If I were not married and if I was fifteen years younger, I might drop everything and follow her around the world. I’ve not been so enamored with a pop star since I was a teenager. She is enormously talented as a songwriter and musician; she’s got an incredible voice, her guitar playing prowess is prodigious, her lyrics are challenging, provocative and smart, and she is beautiful. Oh my god, is she beautiful.

I saw her band two albums ago on the “Strange Mercy” tour at a local concert club and it was almost a religious experience. I was out by myself in this club with hundreds of strangers and I remember that I was, at several points in the show, on the verge of weeping in the wake of the band’s sonic power, their precision performance, and Annie’s otherworldly presence.

Having missed the last tour, I was super stoked to get St. Vincent tickets as a Christmas present for the appropriately titled “Fear the Future” tour in support of the Masseduction album.  The confessional aspect of the title of this blog entry has to do with a few issues regarding her recent album and tour that have given me some pause, made me somewhat uncomfortable, and have raised questions for me about the nature of her work, the nature of live music, and the design and marketing of a music product.

So, to begin with, I’ve seen St. Vincent perform live on television a couple of times over the last few months since the new record came out. In all cases, Annie was singing and playing guitar in front of a pre-recorded musical backdrop, one that approximates in an almost identical way the recorded tracks on the record. I believed when I saw these spots that it was some kind of television studio expedient–that for some reason she chose to perform this way on t.v. Then I started to see a promo photo or two for the show which again pictured Annie Clark with a guitar in front of a microphone on a barren stage with a colorful backdrop. I was in denial that this would be her mode of performance all the way up to showtime. It was, it turned out, indeed the way she was to perform this concert–all by herself, with voice and guitar, backed by pre-recorded tracks and surrounded by a most sophisticated slow crescendo of lighting, staging, and film effects.

I really wanted her to have a band.  Alas, there was no band. I wondered if she was lonely up there. But from my perspective in the audience, was I bored? No. Was her performance lacking? Hell no. Did it sound bad? No. Was it sterile? God no. Was I disappointed in the show? No. Again, she blew my mind and rocked my world, even without a band. I don’t think there are very many artists who could get away with this. She pulled it off. The show was engaging from start to finish, visually and sonically. And there is something about the material, more electronic than anything she’s done before, even while electronics have always seemed to be in the center of her music, that may have leant itself to this kind of presentation. So, even while I was sad there was not a band, I enjoyed myself, and am no less smitten with Annie Clark than I was before.

Here’s the other thing I’ve been thinking about, especially regarding the presentation of the new St. Vincent album and its tour. I have always found Annie Clark’s persona, her vocal stylings, her arrangements, her bold guitar work, and her lyrics–rather sexy.  On this record, in the art, in her dress, and in the visuals for the show, she seems to have amped that up a great deal. When I received the deluxe version of the LP in the mail and opened that baby up, I felt a little bit like I was handling contraband of some kind; it felt a little bit dangerous, and certainly something I wouldn’t be sharing with my 12 year old son. It’s not pornographic in any way, or is it? It depends on how you define pornography. If pornography, as James Joyce defined it, is art that elicits desire, then, well, was this pornographic? This is what bugs me: I can’t or won’t tell. And I also am really interested in her intentions for this design, provided that she had any creative freedom in the matter–which–because I trust her as an artist, I like to believe that she did. Take a look at the album cover and the posters and the t-shirts: a woman’s red stiletto heels, long, pink-stockinged legs, and an ass, adorned with leopard-patterned leotard, her entire torso bent over, one of her arms and her head disappearing through holes in a wall. So, basically, the cover is all legs and ass against a brilliant blood-red backdrop. In other imagery from the album’s art are legs with vividly colored thigh-high latex boots likewise emerging from holes in a wall. In the videos, we see more legs coming out of t.v. screens. Here’s a woman lying on the floor in a clear plastic bag. Annie, for the show, is dressed in what I would call a kind of dominatrix outfit. The only men I remember seeing in the projections during the concert were guys doing yoga while totally wrapped, head to toe, in some strange kind of blue full-body socks. Why do I have second thoughts about publishing this paragraph in a blog entry? What does this reveal about me? I know there is something to work out here, but I’m confused and part of me just wants to listen to this great music. Another part of me really wants to know the significance of this imagery, and how its unquestionable kink matches up thematically with the music. Here’s a lyric from the chorus of the title song, which, even though it seems to be missing an ‘s’, is pronounced mass seduction:

Masseduction: I can’t turn off what turns me on.
Masseduction: I hold you like a weapon.

I want to say that Annie Clark is making a bold and feminist statement about the nature of desire and the fetishizing of body parts and clothing–but beyond that, I am decidedly befuddled. I don’t know what that statement is. I can’t read the tone. It’s absurdist and weird and beautiful. How are you supposed to respond? Are you disturbed or excited or both? Are you disturbed that you’re excited? Are you excited that you’re disturbed? So, finally, I have come to this conclusion, because I trust her: I’m not yet smart enough to figure it out, but she has done for me with this record and this concert and these visuals what great art is supposed to do: make us squirm, make us uncomfortable, make us question, make us interrogate what we think we know. I’m all in, Annie. Thank you. Happy to be a part of your masseduction. I can’t turn off what turns me on, either.

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