Tag Archives: art-punk

Don Dial

“I was twelve when that song came out!”

“It’s a free country, you can be any age you want.”

There’s stage banter and then there are the words that spewed out of Damon Che like a volcano. The drummer and last original member of Pittsburgh’s Don Caballero was absolutely trashed when the trio performed at Harper’s Ferry in Allston this past Sunday. Sweating and pummeling behind the drum kit in a button-down shirt and a pair of boxers, Che addressed the crowd in the same way his band’s songs did between the minutes of drunken balladry; relentlessly, maniacally, unconventionally, humorously, and spontaneously. Moreover, it was hard to tell what he would say next or what metal-meets-punk-meets-art-rock lick the band would blast the crowd with.

Don Caballero

Don Caballero

Sure, Che may have seemed like an asshole at the beginning, going on and on about how his band used to fill bigger places in Boston; hell, if a former member of your 15-year old band was pulling in larger crowds after one album with a new group (former Caballero guitarist Ian Williams of Battles), I could see how you’d get pissed off. Even though under different (sober) circumstances Che might have acted differently, it’s hard for me not to recall the time of unconventional concert-going in which Caballero came to life with their twisted take on rock. Back in ’93, Fugazi (as always, the biggest point of influence for the most outstanding, influential, and creative emo acts) were as well known for subverting the normal rock concert atmosphere by addressing the crowd in absurd ways. From hugging and kissing violent concert-goers to bringing the music to a complete halt if violence broke out on the floor to addressing all kinds of anarchic questions and behaviors, there was no arena-rock fourth wall when Fugazi played.

Ponytail

Ponytail

And the same thing happened the other night. Che’s moments of conversation with the audience weren’t epiphanies, but it certainly diverged from the rock ‘n roll attitude that many concerts always seem to hold as a token rule. Caballero were hardly alone as opener’s Ponytail – one of the best live acts out there – made a great ruckus of genre-melding art-punk as singer Molly Siegel constantly drove her body to the edge of the stage while addressing the crowd whenever possible. Musically, Ponytail one-upped Caballero. But phonetically? Well, you really can’t top Che’s question of the second for the audience:

“Would it hurt my career if I were to join the NRA right now?”

Don Caballero – Palm Trees In The Fecking Bahamas (live):

Ponytail – 7 Souls (live):

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It is the Golden Age

I’m probably one of countless others to check out the newest TV on the Radio song, “Golden Age,” today. Hopefully, I’m also one of countless others to be absolutely floored by the track. The song is off the band’s new album, Dear Science, which will be arriving in just over a month on Interscope, and is available for streaming access at TVOTR’s site. And you’ll never want to move beyond the opening page after hearing this one. It’s just enough to listen and stare at the record’s cover art:

Dear Science cover

Dear Science cover

The cover is a simple, streamlined vision (not unlike Desperate Youth Bloodthirsty Babes, though considerably lacking any outright image). But the song is not quite simple, and it’s all the better for that. The opening bassline is reminiscent of early Talking Heads, while some of the bridges and choruses remind me of a palatable mix of Michael Jackson and George Michael, with high-pitched vocals swept up by uplifting horn sections. It’s got the familiar TVOTR sound, but it’s got a candy-coated pop blast which is celebrated in the spare hand-claps and the string section that pops up halfway through. And man, is it slick, but with a tasty noise-meets-hip-hop-meets-electro center. Let’s hope the rest of the album sounds like this.

TV on the Radio in earlier years

TV on the Radio in earlier years

The kind of work that TV on the Radio has been doing for “art punk” or whatever you want to call it is reminiscent of what Fugazi was doing for emo (though not necessarily that namesake) about a decade and a half ago. TVOTR sprung up from a creative community (Brooklyn) and have continued to support their friends and like-minded peers within Brooklyn and other dedicated outwardly-thinking musical communities through touring and recording support (David Sitek produces numerous art punk acts while Tunde Adebimpe has lent his vocals to tracks by Power Douglass and Subtle). But equally important is the band’s dedication to furthering their musical output into regions least explored. “Golden Age” is a prime example of that; while their earlier work is buried in waves of ambient noise and oft-rambling instrumentals, “Golden Age” takes a 180 degree turn from that without abandoning their original musical voice. The same goes for Fugazi, the group who ardently supported like-minded musicians in DC and nationally, while furthering their take on emo (and a variety of other genres) from straight-up punk anthems (“Waiting Room”) to dub-infested cathartic blasts (“Shut the Door”) to hip-hop infested philosophy exchanges (“Stacks”) to punk-pop panache (“Public Witness Program”) to fuzz-infested rock bliss (“By You”) to jazz-funk freak-outs (“Break”) to campfire-worthy classic rock (“Argument”). In the ability to further challenge one’s own expectations in the drive to achieve a greater musical creation, these two acts have certainly shown that anything is possible.

TV on the Radio – Modern Romance (Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover):

Art With Flavor

Giddy would be a great explanation for how I felt when I saw this news release from Jagjaguwar:

We’re proud to announce that PARTS & LABOR will be releasing their new album, “Receivers,” on 10/21/08 here in the US and 11/03/08 in the UK.

Brooklyn’s Parts & Labor has become one of my favorite bands in recent years, and it’s been simply wonderful to see them grow as an artistic entity and in the eyes of the music community. In a handful of years and successive releases, they’ve turned from an anthemic noise act of uncompromising creativity into the center of a vibrant underground music scene in Brooklyn. With the release of Receivers in October, there is no doubt they’ll continue on their trajectory of making outstanding music. From the sound of it, they’ve already managed to do that. Pitchfork released the track titled “Nowheres Nigh” today, and chances are, P&L aren’t far off from joining a number of their critically-acclaimed contemporaries. The song is pure pop, but still contains those elements that make Parts & Labor such an anomaly; the clashing sounds of electronic blips float with ease atop shoegaze waves of fuzz, while Joe Wong maniacally bashes away on the drum-kit in the background and BJ Warshaw exemplifies the poppiest vocal work to rival any previous track the band has made. It’s a change-up for the band, but it keeps to their mantra of pushing their own creative notions.

old Parts & Labor live pic

old Parts & Labor live pic

I’ve been lucky enough to see Parts & Labor grow in time with a bit of my own maturation. While interning at Rock Sound magazine in London, I introduced the folks at the magazine to Parts & Labor after throwing their then-upcoming release (Mapmaker) onto the stereo. The staff instantly fell in love with the band as I won a little cred in their books; pretty soon I was interviewing Dan Friel for an “Exposure” piece on the band, no doubt bringing them into the homes of many new UK fans. A year later I had the pleasure of putting on a show with the band at Brandeis University; I was involved in putting on a lot of great shows in Chums coffeehouse (the venue of choice at Brandeis), but the Parts & Labor show was one of my favorites. A month ago I treked down to Brooklyn for the After The Jump Fest, where Dan pointed out what acts to check out, which included a set by newly-acquired P&L guitarist Sarah Lipstate’s solo project, Noveller.

I’m more than happy to say that I will also be a part of the next Parts & Labor album. While they worked away on Receivers, Parts & Labor asked fans to send in audio samples, leaving four questions as guides. I sent in a little something, and although I have no idea how they used it, the band has decided to use every single submitted audio sample for their record. Now if that’s not the sign of an inclusive, open community I don’t know what is. Of course, those ideas go hand in hand with Parts & Labor; besides the musical influence of punk’s past, the ideological influence of the DIY, hardcore and post-hardcore greats that filled the 80s is especially strong in how the band runs everything. And community, as strong as it is within the lineage of emo (and I shall write no more on emo and community for this post), is an especially strong aspect of Parts & Labor’s existence and coexistence. Friel and Warshaw even went as far as to create their own record label – Cardboard records – in order to release material from bands that they felt a strong ideological, musical, and personal connection to. Just as, say, Dischord (ok, I lied a little bit about two sentences ago) became an epicenter for a small, DC punk community, Cardboard has become a connection for like-minded musicians across the country. Just pick up Love and Circuits, a double album compiling all the bands that Parts & Labor has shared a communal bond with, and you’ll hear a fraction of the bands involved in the American art-punk/noise/whatever you want to call it community. Just as a record label, a venue, or a town can become centers of musical and cultural scenes, in their own way Parts & Labor – as a band and an idea – have also become something of a meeting point for a community.

The Cardboard Family

The Cardboard Family

Parts & Labor will be performing at Siren Music Festival this Saturday and Whartscape this Sunday. Make it to the shows if you can.

Parts & Labor – Nowheres Nigh

Parts & Labor – The Gold We’re Digging (video):

Double Double

In one corner, weighing in at 6 members is The Mae Shi, with support from The Death Set, at Great Scott.

The Mae Shi live

The Mae Shi live

In the other, pulling together as a duo is No Age, with a little help from High Places and Abe Vigoda, at the Middle East Downstairs.

No Age

No Age

It is a challenge to behold… For music fans of Boston, tonight’s concert calendar will have a tough choice, but either event will provide a winner. This may be a match for an individual’s night, but it is no way a battle between acts. This cavalcade of musicians rolling through town represents some of the brightest acts from the three pivotal underground music communities today.

The Mae Shi, No Age, and Abe Vigoda mastered their craft and honed in on their acts out in LA. There, they (along with a multitude of other acts) formed a community dedicated to furthering the boundaries of art and punk. It’s a living, breathing unit that can be seen in the 40 Bands 80 Minutes documentary (it is what it says – 40 bands performing 2 minute songs in a sweaty LA venue) or on any regular evening at The Smell, the all ages venue that No Age placed smack dab on the cover of their 2007 album Weirdo Rippers. With the critical acclaim these three acts – alongside peers such as HEALTH and Mika Miko – have been receiving, the LA underground scene has once again been thrown into the national music limelight.

The Smell

The Smell

Although LA has received a considerable amount of attention, so has Brooklyn (home of High Places) and, more than any other area, Baltimore (home of The Death Set). Forever cast in the shadows of nearby, larger areas (Baltimore has DC, and although Brooklyn is a part of NYC, Manhattan has always dominated the other burroughs), these tiny, seemingly-culturally deprived areas have burst with creative ingenuity in all forms of the arts. Baltimore has built an insular community to match its small sized, and has since been propelled to the national level thanks in part to the Wham City collective and its unofficial head Dan Deacon; in little pockets of a city that most residents have either forgotten or never cared about, out came a sprawling arts basin that seems as communally inbred as it is creative. Venture north a number of hours and you hit Brooklyn, itself a sprawling mass of space that’s cheaper – and therefore, more attractive to aspiring artists looking to make it in the big city. Any busted-up storefront could easily be turned into an art gallery or performance space, and a good number of them art (at least in the Williamsburg area). Out of it has formed numerous art-punk acts as wide spread, yet communally linked; TV On The Radio, Battles, Parts & Labor, and a ton of others all call this place home.

Baltimores Video Hippos at Brooklyns Death by Audio

Baltimore's Video Hippos at Brooklyn's Death by Audio

Both Baltimore and Brooklyn offer scenes that are in close proximity to areas of cultural resonance, but their chance location has given both places an almost-secluded quality which has allowed these communities to prosper and trade ideas amongst one another without the eye of the mainstream music world staring down upon them. LA, though a mainstream cultural capital in its own respect, is so spread out that over the past few decades, it has allowed for numerous musically-based culture movements to spawn and spread out of little pockets in the vast city side and across the suburban sprawl. These communities are created and developed in the guise of complete creativity, without the influence and impact of commercial interest to hinder, attract, or distract anything or anyone from the ultimate goal of creation. These qualities are the typical stamp-of-approval for the development of underground art communities in the US; the resources are there in almost every location in America, but it takes a special formula of location, individuals, and atmosphere to make it work.

This is an important aspect of the development and continued thriving of emo as an underground cultural force. It’s still one that drives the many different voices of emo in its current underground status. True, emo has become a fashionable commodity, but it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t continued to thrive as an underground culture, one separate from its mainstream state. It’s the ideas of creativity and independence that the innovators of the culture imbued into its artistic essence that not only kept emo in the underground for so long (around 15-17 years, depending on when you choose to mark its beginning and entrance into the mainstream). When what became known as “emo” began in the ashes of DC’s hardcore scene, a good chunk of the punk music community scorned it as hardcore had yet to hit its dramatic fall on the national level. DC was (and in many ways, still is) ignored by the music industry as an important place, so emo transformed, unfettered by outsiders and made for the better by community members. As Fugazi became the scene’s main touring act and magnet, their sound became a beacon to anyone looking beyond the convention of punk and broadcast a vibrant and diverse aural image of emo around the world.

Fugazi

Fugazi

From there, communities outside of the insular DC scene began to form around the idea of emo. The strongest cross-state emo community to arise didn’t occur until the mid 90s. While connections formed among artists from different scenes (Sunny Day Real Estate and Shudder To Think as touring partners comes to mind), the mid 90s provided a time when scenes across the country formed their own little pockets and ideas of emo, yet would come together to share them. Outside of DC (which added Chisel and The Dismemberment Plan to their list), the East Coast had pockets of sound; NYC had Texas Is The Reason, New Jersey had Lifetime, Boston had Karate and Jejune (who later moved to California), and down in Florida (if you want to count it as the East Coast) there was Hot Water Music.

Mineral

Mineral

But the mid 90s and emo will forever be associated with the Mid-West, where the bands were as connected to their hometown scenes as they were with the rest of the middle-country-divide. Cap’n Jazz, The Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Christie Front Drive, Braid, The Get Up Kids, Boy’s Life, and dozens more upon hundreds of those which may never be heard by the masses have formed a dominant portrait of a land and time in the emo narrative. The places they came from are all different and so are their ideas, but they all came together to form a variety of sounds that continue to exist within popularized forms of emo today. Consider it the time of multiculturalism in underground American punk. While the national hardcore scene transformed local sounds into one big rule-based notion of musical defiance summarized in a minute and a half of screams and thrashing guitars, the mid 90s Mid-West emo scene allowed for individual pockets to develop their version of emo undeterred by outsiders all while coming together to form bonds and trade ideas to enhance their individual perspectives. This can be seen in everything from split singles on vinyl (such as the Jimmy Eat World/Christie Front Drive split that attracted the attention of Captiol Records) to a shared creation of lyrics (The Promise Ring’s “Picture Postcard” attributes some lyrical content to Braid’s Bob Nanna), to simple ties of friendship that extend past inter-state routes. Just as the movers and shakers of today’s underground music scenes breach state lines to form communities while continuing to build their local ones, emo became a strong presence throughout America before it became a mainstream phenomenon. Those connections kept it a living, moving center of a community, and that notion continues to drive like-minded individuals who operate under whatever label they choose to this very day.
No Age – Eraser

The Mae Shi – Vampire Beats (video):

Bastards of Pop

By now most music-loving folk are aware of the pay-what-you-want, online release of Girl Talk’s latest album, Feed The Animals. But this isn’t about that… well, it’s almost not about that. As any other savy internet users are concerned, a trio of folks hailing from the greater Baltimore/DC area new about this all to well. Funny thing is, the title of Girl Talk’s new album is startlingly similar to a certain activity that these three individuals do to fulfill their creative impulses. And darn it if the members of Food For Animals didn’t do something about it. The savvy members of one of the top experimental hip-hop troupes in the country put their imagination to the test and came out with a remix of Feed The Animals that is as hilarious as it is genuinely well-crafted. The inversion of the Girl Talk record cover didn’t hurt either.

Girl Talk\'s Feed The Animals

Food For Animals\' remix

Sure, this may sound like another attempt by an under-appreciated musical act trying to grab some limelight off of the backs of pop sensations. Actually, pop sensations may be the key word to why this isn’t a case of bandwagon-ing popularity. That same realm where Girl Talk has become such a heroic image is one where Food For Animals have gotten their fare and deserved share of praise and following as well; from Spin to Pitchfork, numerous well-regarded places of music criticism have praised FFA for their latest album – Belly.

No, this is not a case of scraping for some 15 minutes of fame. This isn’t even about fame. This is a great case of that simple keyword… community. The FFA remix is more a work of humorous camaraderie than anything negative or self-serving. For Gregg Gillis and FFA, it is another mark of a shared aesthetic dedicated to the opposite of pop-sanctuary; underground artistry. Their physical hometowns may be separate (Pittsburgh for GT, and Baltimore/DC for FFA), but their ideal one is a special place known as Wham City.

Brooklyn\'s Matt & Kim at Whartscape 2007

Wham City is a collective of artists and musicians who’ve made a hometown in Baltimore. More than that, they’ve made a scene-worthy presence out of Baltimore. Although Wham City is a close-knit crew (headed by electronics wunderkid Dan Deacon) and is not the entire community of Baltimore’s diverse art-punk scene, they have nevertheless become the center and face of the creativity bubbling out of the once-forgotten town. While institutions as high on the music-critiquing food chain as Rolling Stone have come a-calling, it has yet to diminish the creative culmination of the relatively anti-establishment scene. If anything, it’s simply drawn other like-minded individuals to the area and those who have made themselves an important part of building an artistically-challenging community. The connections within the scene are more personal than musically-similar. This year’s Whartscape Festival features, along side Gregg Gillis (playing with his side project Trey Told ‘Em) and Food For Animals, a number of musicians from across the country who are more dedicated to pushing the bounds of music than they are to carving a universal pop niche. There’s The Mae Shi (from LA), Black Dice (NYC), Parts & Labor (Brooklyn), and a ton of local Baltimore acts. What they lack in definite sound they make up for in their shared passion for underground music, ingenuity, and community.

Emo was birthed out of a very similar thesis of community as seen through performance. Music was the cache, but it wasn’t the only distinct quality of those communities. The places friends within the scene would interact and think of as home bases, the venues that bands practiced and played, the ideas that individuals shared and used to challenge one another – not just musically, but in life – were as integral to the scene as the tag placed on the original scene’s existence.

The Revolution Summer scene, the first community to be burdened with the label “emo” was a particular exemplary of the feat of flexibility. Some ideological and musical characteristics were shared, but the common bond over strengthening the community beyond the rigidity that defeated DC’s hardcore scene was stronger than any detrimentally-inclined tag. The acts that followed in the footsteps of the broken-up Revolution Summer acts continued to build on the ideas of community, welcoming other individual-thinkers into their world, and emiting a new crop of bands that did little to conform to any standards. Groups like Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, Shudder To Think, Jawbox, and a host of others opened up the interpretations of the local “emo” sound to distinctly new possibilities. And others flocked to their community. Bikini Kill, though not emo, left the West Coast for DC, while Dischord welcomed Baltimore’s Lungfish in with open arms (quite a feat considering that Dischord was meant to be a forum for only DC acts).

With the breakthrough of alternative music into the mainstream, the emo acts of DC formed connections with others across America through correspondence, touring, and even producing; Jawbox’s J Robbins was a primary producer of many well-known 2nd wave emo acts. As the ideological, aesthetic, and musical aspects of emo spread around the country, tight bonds were formed by dis-separate acts throughout the Mid West. Those who form the core of 2nd wave emo acts  – The Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Christie Front Drive, etc – were all connected through friendship rather than sharing three chords.

Even today, when emo has lost a lot of its elasticity of definition due to stereotypes, community is as an important aspect as ever. Acts bond through touring (such as playing together on Warped Tour), shared record labels (Vagrant, Fueled By Ramen), a communal upbringing (such as Thursday and numerous other acts who honed their sound in New Jersey basements), and friendship (be it Thursday and My Chemical Romance or Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco). Community is the strongest bond of the most-creative (and often times, successful) emo acts. Those bands looking to take advantage of a currently-popular, commercially-consumed genre tend to bring out the worst in emo. But it’s community that has allowed emo to continue to thrive and survive to this day, and it’s community that will continue to drive some of the most ingenious and forward-thinking musical movements.

Food For Animals – Girl Talk

Baltimore’s Double Dagger at Whartscape 2007: