Sunday, August 21, 2011

Why I'm Not Reviewing Ida Maria's New Album

I loved Ida Maria's debut album, Fortress 'Round My Heart. It's one of my favorite albums of the last five years, so I jumped at the chance to review Katla, her recent follow-up. But my primary outlet for album reviews these days is CD Hotlist, an online publication aimed at people who buy music recordings for libraries. And that's the hitch. Katla is part of a growing trend of albums that are only available as digital downloads, not in physical form. To make a long story short, because of standard end-user license agreements, libraries can't buy digital downloads for their borrowers to use. My colleague D. J. Hoek has written about this issue in greater detail. So there is no point in CD Hotlist running a review of an album that libraries can't buy.
I'm hoping the situation will change. In the short run, I hope Ida Maria's label will view Katla as enough of a priority to issue it on CD. In the long run, I hope the copyright laws will change or vendors will change their restrictions so that libraries can collect, preserve and allow access to digital-only recordings. I've got a review of the album ready to go. The short version is that it's awesome.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Concert Recommendation: Fountains of Wayne, Brighton Music Hall, August 12 & 13

I just finished my third music theory class. My professor praised my work on my final project, asking if was my first composition. I explained that I had only composed for assignments in my music theory classes. I've been aware that I'm perfectly capable of writing something that meets the criteria for an assignment but have absolutely no idea about its aesthetic values: it's correct, but is it any good? I have my doubts.

Then I came home and listened again to Sky Full of Holes, the new album by Fountains of Wayne. My rudimentary composition skills will never match their ability to craft hooks. The new album isn't quite as heavy on them as some of their previous releases, but the band's entire body of work is overrun with them. They will showing off their hooks in a pair of Boston shows, one electric, one acoustic, this weekend. They will also be showing off their other skills: the specificity of their lyrics, Jody Porter as their secret weapon adding muscle on guitar, and a general sense of playfulness with their presentation.

I'm not fretting over not matching their compositional skills since I can compensate with other expertise. I've reviewed the new album for CDHotlist: New Releases for Libraries. I'm surprised that other reviewers have failed to comment on the change in perspective, that they are now writing about people well into adulthood, which I particularly appreciate as someone who is well into adulthood myself.

Fountains of Wayne play the Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Avenue, Allston, MA, 617-779-0140, with Nicole Atkins at 9:00 p.m. on Friday, August 12 (electric) and Saturday, August 13 (acoustic).

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

It has already won the 2010 National Book Award for non-fiction, but I'll add what I can to the heaps of praise for Just Kids by Patti Smith.

The world is overrun with celebrity memoirs. Even those with ghost writers or co-authors are rarely worth reading unless one is already interested in that celebrity. But Patti Smith established herself as a writer of poetry and prose before making her biggest splash as a nonconformist rock star. What makes this book so special is that it is a beautiful, fascinating read even for those who aren't fans of her or Robert Mapplethorpe's work.

The title refers to Smith and Mapplethorpe's early adulthood, when most of the book is set. Smith offers sketches of her childhood, leading to her decision to take off to New York by herself to become an artist. Through a series of coincidences that were stranger than fiction, she repeatedly runs into the young Robert Mapplethorpe, and the two become lovers. Together, they struggle to find their way in the world. Both know that they want to be artists but are working through the process of determining what sort of art to pursue. They also just need to survive on a day-to-day basis, scraping by on meager incomes, trying to fund their art and fill their bellies. As time goes on, together they come to terms with Mapplethorpe's homosexuality and how it affects their relationship.

Smith chronicles not only their own lives but the literary, art and music scene in New York in late 1960s and early 1970s. Famous names pass through their orbits, but Smith is no mere name-dropper and conveys the atmosphere at places like the Chelsea Hotel and Max's Kansas City for all its denizens. She unravels how she found her voice, and eventually an audience, as a poet and musician and how Mapplethorpe did so with his photography. The story trails off when they are no longer "just kids" but wraps up with Mapplethorpe's untimely death from AIDS.

I laughed in recognition when Smith said she made more money selling promo copies of records than she did selling her writing as a rock critic. But I was also amazed by her bravery in setting out into the world to pursue her dreams, with only the safety net of Mapplethorpe. It was a wonderfully complex, supportive relationship. Their life together was quite an adventure, exquisitely rendered by Smith.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Update on Some Thoughts about NIN

The last time I saw Nine Inch Nails, I commented in my review "Reznor is screaming, 'Too fucked up to care anymore.' I'm pondering whether Nine Inch Nails has received the academic examination it so clearly merits, and whether filling that possible void is why I should be heading back to grad school."

I'm happy to say that I'm just putting the finishing touches on a paper about Nine Inch Nails. I decided to analyze "The Great Destroyer" rather than "Somewhat Damaged," but the semester is still young. The shorter version: Fuck you, Adorno. Just because it's modern and it's popular doesn't mean it isn't also serious art.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Concert Review: The English Beat, Johnny D's, Somerville, January 4

The English Beat are better than you remember. Off the top of your head, you can only recall "Mirror in the Bathroom" and their cool logo. But they have more songs that make you go, "Oh, yeah, this is really good," than you realized. And they can get a party going on a cold Tuesday night in January like nobody's business.

"How Can You Stand There?" was the unofficial theme song for the night. It was probably about political apathy, but it applied to the audience at a more literal level to the few hold-outs in the audience. Most of the sold-out crowd at Johnny D's was on their feet and dancing. Even people with seats at tables on the edges of the crowded room were up and moving. Dave Wakeling could taunt someone up front for standing still with arms folded only because it was a rarity. Even more impressive about "How Can You Stand There?" is that it was a new song, not yet recorded, but it fit in so easily with their repertoire of hits that the audience never slowed down.

And the major and minor hits kept coming: "Hands Off She's Mine," "I Confess," "Best Friend," "Twist and Crawl," "Save It For Later" (See what I said about more good songs than you remember?) They brought out the covers that they put their own stamp on, "Tears of a Clown," "Can't Get Used to Losing You" and "I'll Take You There." Guitarist and singer Dave Wakeling is the only original member still with the band; the current keyboard player probably wasn't even born when the Ranking Roger was bobbing around in videos in the early days of MTV. But the line-up in tight, ably delivering the material that made the band the epitome of the early '80s ska revival.

No, the evening wasn't perfect. While it was impressive that they played more than two hours, the energy in the room sagged at around the 1 hour 45 mark; they could have trimmed a few songs and still kept the audience more than satisfied. And it's hard to fully endorse a group so clearly trading on nostalgia. But it's also hard to fault a band that generates so much fun.