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best of pop! 2016

January 12th, 2017 by slewfoot

Music: Steve Kilbey and Martin Kennedy, You are Everything (2013)

Consistent with tradition, I’ve crafted a list of my favorite albums of 2016. I’ve posted it on Medium because I like that forum, so if you’re interested, point your browser here.

fascism r us

July 24th, 2016 by slewfoot

Music: Max Richter: Sleep (2015)

I wrote another bloggish thing about Trump and his supporters, but I published on Medium, which looks better and is, frankly, superior to workpress. So, you can click this handy linky-dink to read it. Cheers!

encomium of melissa click

March 26th, 2016 by slewfoot

Much has been written about my friend, Melissa Click. A lot of the defenses of Melissa have decried the violation of due process and her mistreatment. I took a moment to defend her character: she’s also a good person. The piece is over on medium (click here), because it’s easier to read.

gun/control freaks

January 13th, 2016 by slewfoot

Music: The Orb: Bicycles and Tricycles (2004)

The year “opened” with a tinny bang here in central Texas, as it is now legal to openly tote around handguns (it was already legal to open carry long firearms). I haven’t noticed anyone actually openly carrying weaponry around town, and I suspect for two reasons. First, I live in a neighborhood that seems relatively disinterested in doing that kind of identity work: while some pockets are “middle class,” overall it’s an economically disadvantaged area that has shootings every year or so. Threats of gun violence have a chilling effect on brandishing heat, I suspect. Second, and closely related, Texas law enforcement officials have been advancing a reasonable talking-point in local media: licensed folks should have the good sense to know that during “an event,” the “bad guys” would take out the open-carry folks first. The advantage of packing heat is that it is concealed, buying the would-be defender the advantage of time and stealth. When cops are urging permit carriers to conceal their firearms, it gets my attention.

Of course, open-carry advocates are quick to stress businesses can opt-out (many have) and schools are exempt—but concealed-carry is now a thing in schools. Starting in August, students and faculty are legally permitted to pack heat into university classrooms, auditoriums, dormitories, and so on. The primary argument advanced for concealed carry on campus is that a “good guy with a gun” can stop a mass shooting. Many have asked me if I intend to say something about this expanded right on my course syllabi, and I have responded “no.” While I personally oppose concealed carry, and while it does frighten me that my deliberately provocative lecturing style might inspire a student toward violence (frontal lobe development, anyone?), it seems to me making an issue of it in my course syllabi will draw unwanted attention: it could, as they say, backfire.

Insofar as the argument that more gun ownership leads to less violence has been routinely disproven, we can conclude this frenzy in favor of weaponry is meeting some other needs. It is commonplace, for example, for those on the side of gun control to characterize the clamoring for more guns as a response to inherently unstable notions of masculinity (hence, this campus response). To me, the most interesting needs are three: (1) it makes the gun carrier feel safe; (2) open carry is really not about guns, but what they represent symbolically; and (3) second amendment politics is a spectacle politics, which is to say open carry legislation is more about the fact that it was passed than the right it expands.

The second and third needs are yoked at the scene of paranoia and on the staged perception of oppression: “they’re taking your hap-penis away!” But the common perception of one’s underdog status coupled with paranoid feelings are not reducible to an assailed masculinity in crisis; as I’ve been arguing over the past two years, these identifications and feelings, when pushed in to the service of a demand, tracks a shift in the structure of public discourse from the neurotic to the psychotic. I do not mean pathology here, but rather, refer to a certain patterned structure of the collective psyche: in the 1950s, authority was a real thing that folks believed in; Tip O’Neill still worked with Ronald Reagan, folks in general had a feeling of inner-limit or limitation, that modicum of insecurity that paves the way for trust. Today, authority has fragmented into discursive encampments. Nasty Twitter battles and hateful Facebook status updates are of a piece with righteousness regarding the second amendment: insecurity, instead of leading to the risk of trust, is now expressed in what amounts to a tantrum. That kind of behavior—so ridiculously embodied in the leading Republican presidential candidate—is psychotic in character because it betrays an inability to accept limitation or the answer “no.”

Of course, I am characterizing recent political discourse as psychotic. There is good reason to think, however, that when we talk about the rhetors of such psychotic discourse we may need the category of perversion. I’m currently working on a pair of essays that try to lay this out vis-à-vis genre. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, a number of my colleagues in rhetorical studies have been observing, for some years, that second amendment righteousness is really about identity. In a recent essay on the second amendment, Laura J. Collins argues that gun rights fanaticism represents a “demand politics” that is akin to an addiction to an “outsider” identity and sense of victimage. Through a complex yet succinct analysis she traces how the National Rifle Association transformed from a gun safety civic club into an aggressive, political faction and the parallel transformation of the judicial interpretation of the second amendment. In this view, a “demand” is something akin to what a toddler makes: no matter how many times you give the tyke a cookie, it will never be enough because it’s not about the cookie. In the end, all demands are demands for love, but they can be sublimated into political movements: the civil rights movement, for example, is a form of demand politics (the demand for recognition). The trouble, as Collins spells out, is that demands are addictive and if that is the only thing one seeks (in a politics or in personal life), demands trend in the end toward violence. For this reason, the gun lobby has become increasingly intolerant, aggressive, and mean. For example, Texas has open carry now, but rather than celebrate that fact, the gun lobby remains angry about California’s ban.

In response to Collins, Brett Lunceford refigures her reading in relation to Richard B. Gregg’s conception of the “ego function” of social movement rhetoric (again, it’s about identity as much as “cause”). Mike Hogan and Craig Rood respond by suggesting, in addition to psychology, the impasse over guns is also a result of poor deliberation and political inaction. For my part, agreeing with Collins and Christian Lundberg, I attempt to locate the celebration and enjoyment (as in, jouissance) of the failures of political sublimation in a way that is somewhat in keeping with Hogan and Rood’s take on the failures of public policy: gun law and policy is not adjudicated with argument, it’s felt (you can download my response here). Feelings are all that are important; it’s no longer “I have a right to an opinion,” but rather, “I have a right to my feelings, and they are hurt!”

Trump’s ridiculous ambition to build a “big wall” is a plan taken directly from Pink Floyd’s most popular double-album (also about feelings, parents, and weapons). “The Wall” can be appealing only insofar as arguments are irrelevant. Most arguments depend on an informal logic that links “evidence” to a “claim” in a more or less sound manner (the “warrant”)—which is the truth upon which all deliberation rests. Arguments require the authority of truth, at some level. Brett, Mike, Craig and I agree with Collins that the irrational, almost adolescent tantrums about guns from those right of center rest on the right to one’s feelings.

What the gun/control freaks help us to see is that affect (and rhetorical) studies need a deeper engagement with bad feelings, particularly those yoked to a righteous sense of individualism (as the toddler screams, “MINE!”). Also, we have to start paying attention to a “bad feeling” that is increasingly commonplace since Nine-eleven: envy about someone else’s depression, anger, trauma, or grief.

As many of us who study persuasion know, however, influencing another person is a form of suggestion, a kind of wakeful, hypnogogic craft. Which is to say our feelings are shared, and our emotions, well, they’ve never really “our own” to begin with.

best of pop, 2015!

December 28th, 2015 by slewfoot

When I determine my best-of music lists every year, I meditate on what I put on heavy rotation. Here are the albums I played the most.

Roy Orbison: One of the Lonely Ones

In the sixties Roy had it rough; he watched his wife die in a motorcycle accident, and shortly thereafter his first two sons were killed in a house fire. Perhaps to help him mourn—details are scant—Roy went into the studio in 1969 and recorded this remarkable album. It was recently discovered by his surviving sons and released the first week of December. Roy’s music is characterized as melancholic, but this one earns the adjective in the key of overkill. Opening with the best rendering of the Pacemakers’ “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and closing with a heart-wrenching love song clearly sung to his late wife, the sincerity of Roy’s emotion never wavers. The title track is the darkest of his catalog (“I’m sick and tired, uninspired, I rather be dead and done/ Than to be what I’ve become/ One of the lonely ones”), and there is a very strange track, sung from the perspective of a Vietnam solider wondering if the government will leave his body or bring it “home” to be buried. There’s also an attempt to craft a counterpart to “Pretty Woman” titled “Child-Woman,” which is a bit creepy (and probably about his second spouse Barbara, whom he had recently met on tour in Europe). Regardless of this odd-ball rocker, the album is cohesive and one of my favorite of Roy’s catalog. In retrospect it’s very easy to see why MGM shelved this—it’s too gothic and dour for 1969 (the year of Altamont and the year that optimistic pop music sorta died). It’s a must have.

Shenandoah and the Night: 100 Wants

Shenandoah Ableman’s lovely, quivering voice—something like a less secure Margo Timmins—is buoyed by soft, ambling, late-night indie pop, veering into folk territory. Self-described as “noir” in tone, it’s a somber affair with periodic melodies of joy. The self-titled single is a breathtaking love song (“I want to be good to you, I want to be good for you”) that is like a morning caress; the first time I heard it I got weepy.

New Order: Music Complete

The album’s title is brilliant, because the latest by the newly reformed dance/indie-rock outfit of the 80s is basically the J.J. Abram’s Star Wars of popular music: nothing quite adventuresome or new, but everything classically New Order.

Cemeteries: Barrow

My only complaint about this brilliant exploration of melancholic joyfulness is that it is too short. Kyle Reigle’s largely solo Cemeteries create haunting and seductive late evening music, something akin to a Mellotron playing underwater, driven with sparse percussion and piano riffs. The album ambles along, at times reaching angelic-like, heavily treated choruses. Fans of the obscure but awesome ambient outfit from New Orleans, Belong, will find a familiar soul in Reigle’s creations.

Holy Holy: When the Storms Would Come

The opening track teaches that darkness is the absence of light, warning the listener not to mistake Monday’s sentiment as an essence. In this way this duo leads the listener into an expansive folk, indie rock landscape (the whole album is scenic in tone, expansive, the guitar work gliding along over a series of lullaby valleys and rock-out mountains here and there). The vocal harmonies are in the tenor range, bringing to mind the work of Turin Brakes. These songs are sweet, at times melancholy. The beautifully doomed love song, “Wanderer,” is my favorite track (“In the sunshine of your heart/ You found me wandering”). There’s not a video of that track, I regret, but the opening one is good:

Drab Majesty: Careless

We “crusty old goths” often complain about the demise of the genre—few artists seem dedicated to the bass-line heavy crooning about death and drugs anymore (even worse, most of those who do make terrible music, such as the Merciful Nuns). Two notable exceptions are a Turkish band, She Past Away, and the trans-glam-goth Drab Majesty, Deb DeMure’s paean to mid-fi 80s new wave goth. Drum machine, electronic woobles, and melodic electric guitar all support DeMure’s soft voice, which delivers comparably to Ronny Moorings’ style—but not in a copied way. Drab Majesty is a new version of an old style, but delightfully done in a manner that is both danceable and meditative. If you ever liked drum-machine goth (yes, I mean the Sisters), this album is a must. Notably, she’s also dedicated some thought and time to reviving the music video; this one for the opening track is spectacularly fun:

Slow Meadow: Slow Meadow

Every year I like to recommend an ambient album; I know this kind of music is not everyone’s cup of bourbon, but I listen to ambient music more than any other genre—when I’m working, and when I go to bed. Slow Meadow is the debut band name and album by Houston composer Matthew Kid, in the tradition of Stars of the Lid, but certainly different. Part drone, part strings, part piano, Kid’s work the soundtrack to a melodrama film, sad and joyful at the same time. This album has taken me into sleep countless time this year, but it is just as rewarding to listen to on an airplane to take the teeth out of turbulence. Lovely music.

Devotional: Wild Blue

An Aussie Cowboy Junkies, with less country-western sensibility and more Mazzy Star and strings; folksy, but with harmonica. Madelaine Lucas’ voice is sweet, understated, and wavers out of tune at times in just the right way. This is another sleepy album for slowing the day down (and a second nod to Timmins . . . ). They don’t have any vids or clips from this year’s album, but here’s a track from the previous one that is sorta “updated” on the new one in a tune titled, “My Baby Revisited”:

Cheathas: Mythologies

Jangly, British shoegaze by boys singing harmonious choruses; slabs of fuzz alternate with dreamy ballady sequences; electronic bloops and weird noises aboud; filtersweeps you in the face; and psychedelically stitched together. Delicious.

Hobbess: Caved Out (EP)

On a recent visit to Atlanta the station formerly known as Album 88 (now an NPR station) started playing Calvin Erdal’s new EP and I was taken into its quasi-dub-step ambient doodles and vocal samples. This kind of ambient music is often erroneously labeled as “dub-step” because of the percussive effects, but really, Hobbess is its own unique meld of breaks and bloops; I don’t quite know how to describe it, but I hope there’s a whole album of it to come! Here’s the stand out track:

Novella: Land

Lush fans lookout: this is about the dreamiest new shoegaze band to emerge since 4AD abandoned pedalboard bands: lovely, harmonizingly punk female vocals float in and out of walls of fuzz and tremolo, with hard hitting drums. They don’t rely exclusively on pedals for the sound: there is some real creative fretwork and ideas that are not simply a rehash.

Shamir: Ratchet

Infectiously queer dance music. A little goes a long way—don’t apply liberally or you’ll get sick of it really quick. But, you know, it is a brilliant album that will be copied to death.

Ok, the next three are albums from 2014 that I never got around to recommending, but I’m still listening to them so here you go:

Mysteries: New Age Music is Here: Debuting their music last year the Mysteries threesome deliberately hid their identities and origins in the hope folks would engage their percussion-heavy, electronic dream-pop on its own terms, which really did help spread their sound across the music blogosphere. The whole album is funny and enchanting, which croony-vocals and creative synth sounds sure to please fans of TV on the Radio and Gary Numan. It’s alternately dance-y and meditative, and just a marvelous sound from start to finish:

Sir Sly: You Haunt Me: This Los Angeles trio makes some pretty catchy pop music just (only) a shy bit left of the dial—that one of their songs is already featured in a car commercial may have paved the road to Maroon 5—but I found myself listening to it a lot for the upbeat groove, even with songs on unpleasant topics. The innovative, synthesized back-up vocals on the track “Leave You” is evidence enough of their pop genius.

Sleep of Monsters: Produces Reason: Death rock didn’t really survive the 90s here in the states when the goth kids stopped wearing thick eyeliner to work, but with the likes of HIM the tradition was kept alive in Scandinavia, and the shinest example is Finland’s Sleep of Monsters, which combines a goth sensibility with, uh, cheesy cock-rock riffs and soulful, back up singers. Upon my first listen I didn’t know what to make of the pretense to anthems—again, I thought it was a bit cheesy, but then so is most goth and death rock—but I kept coming back to it and fell in love with it. It’s not easy to peg as “death rock” because it’s too mainstream, but it’s not likely to end up on the radio either with the occult aesthetics. The stand out track is the lead:

best of pop, 2013!

March 18th, 2014 by slewfoot

Well, this blog is not QUITE dead yet!

All year I listen, ravenously, to pop music with a little daemon in my head that sometimes says, “listen closer, this could make your best of the year list.” And so it is a shame to have the little mental beast monitoring my ear so tirelessly only to be ignored—but 2014 was born and life rushed by, and new albums are inspiring even more mental chatter. So I better get this out before it’s drowned by the Dum Dum Girl’s latest delicious disc. Better late than not at all, too, right? Actually, I wrote this weeks ago and forgot to post!

Since the aughts there hasn’t been a bad year for popular music, and this is primarily because the Internet has proliferated self-publishing and distribution. 2013 was so full of treats it’s difficult to limit myself to a top ten to devour (there are so many honorable mentions, and the more I think about my list the more I debate what to add and subtract). One way to winnow is to exclude popular acts with major label support and suggest bands that I suspect some folks may have not yet heard of, which means I will pass over reviews of Miley Cyrus’ +Bangers+—the brilliant marketing of which no one could escape—a good, slickly produced and solid pop album, and Nine Inch Nail’s +Hesitation Marks+, with Reznor returning to a more layered and nuanced 90s sound (I love the album, although Reznor’s lyrical prowess has yet to graduate from high school). Here are ten albums that you might consider, if your tastes run my way (I’m a kid of the 80s), in alphabetical order:

1. Darkside: +Psychic+: Long, hypnotic, addictive, Darkside create a “minimalist” groove with mumbled falsetto lyrics that meld psychedelia and . . . well, Sébastien Tellier. What I absolutely adore about this album is that each song is as long as it needs to be—the band is not in a hurry. From the brilliant, eleven-minute opener “Golden Arrow” that takes you long into the night of contemplative groove only to dump you into two minutes of keyboard doodling, to the insistent patient synth flares of the spaced out “Metatron,” +Psychic+ is the late night album of the year.


2. The Eden House: +Half Life+: Something of a super-group of goth-rock and darkwave legends—they’re anchored by the unmistakable bass work of Tony Pettitt (of the Fields of the Nephilim)—The Eden House’s second full-length is a masterful blend of Monica Richard’s-style vocals and epic guitar riffs. It’s goth gone adult-contemporary, in a sense (we’re all middle-aged now, after all), but a delightful listen nonetheless with crisp production. The album sustains a good, often hypnotic mood from one side to the other. I could do without the spoken lyrics on a few tracks; I’m just happy this kind of music is not relegated to the cut-out bins at CD and record shops that are, increasingly, also getting cut.


3. Go Fight: +Music for Military Torture+: The title of the newest album to showcase the remarkable talents of Jim Marcus is apparently an oblique reference to fellow electronic pioneers Skinny Puppy, who demanded $666,000 in royalties from the U.S. government after learning their music was used in a detention center. The title captures the lyrical focus of the album, which is a left-leaning series of rants against hatred, homophobia, organized religion, and corporate greed as well as a celebration of human sexuality. The sensibility is less “heavy” fare than the club-favored Die Warzau (now de-funked), more electro or “EBM” and very danceable. This is fun industrial music, sometimes with sing-a-long choruses that may initially seem crude; a study of the lyrics reveals, however, the refrain “eff like a movie star” is not really an imperative Marcus means, but a critique of the “erectile dysfunction” industry. The creative programming of each track demands multiple listens (it’s great music to dance to, but it lends itself very nicely to earphones while working out). The track that seems to divide fans is “White Guys,” a hilarious (and catchy) read of those guys at the club we all make fun of . . . .

Video (not on the album, but a good cause):

4. I Break Horses: +Chiaroscuro+: I’m not sure what we call the genre of electronic based music that draws a line from The Knife through to Lorde, but Sweden’s Maria Lindén and Fredrik Balck’s debut is more richly textured than the lot. From the backward, choral flourishes that punctuate the complex rhythms of “Faith” to the soaring, treated vocals of the closer, “Heart to Know,” the jam-packed layers of each track demand earphones. This is richly rewarding, touching electronic music that makes me smile inside. It’s just so damn clever (and pretty).


4. LowCityRain: +self-titled+: Known more for his post-metal work, Markus Siegenhort’s “solo” project is a moody, riff-ready, jangly slab of baritone vocals and shoe-gaze soaring with tightly, woven bass-lines so popular in the late 80s era. The stand out track here is “Grey View,” which touches on a Red Lorry, Yellow Lorry sensibility as the credits role to some tragic John Hughes teen angst. Siegenhort doesn’t quite know how to end a song with anything other than a “fade to silence,” but every track is as delicious as they are too short.


5. Connan Mockasin: +Caramel+: If Prince and Ween made a baby while dropping acid and taking shots of cough syrup in between bong hits . . . I’d not really want to see or hear that baby. But I bet they’d be playing this new Mockasin album on vinyl. This is the strangest album I’ve heard in many years, a kind of smarmy groove with guitars played underwater and vocals treated to sound like nude chipmunks trying to seduce smurfs. I know that’s not a ringing endorsement, but really, it’s so very weird that is should not work at all. But it does. You can listen to this on a Sunday afternoon while reading the paper. THIS is why the album is amazing. Test out “Do I Make You Feel Shy?” on iTunes or something, you’ll hear what I mean (this is, by the way, the least bizarre track).


6. Night Sins: +To London or the Lake+: It’s Philadelphia synth-and-guitar goth music. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and these guys do it very, very well. Brooding bass lines, baritone harmonies, soaring guitar riffs, a driving beat. Sisters fans, this is your contemporary fix on an old idiom done well.


7. Agnes Obel: +Aventine+: While Obel is widely known and celebrated in her home country of Denmark, few stateside will have had the fortune to hear her sweet, dark, piano-anchored compositions. Her voice is soft and expressive, and while her range is impressive its her restraint that deserves celebrating here: while the U.S. is dominated by screams or flights of impassioned grandiloquence, Obel croons, she woos. And her moods smell like a Danish forest in the snow. It’s dark, but not “goth”—more like, well, winter. Beautiful and strange.


8. Rhye: +Woman+: So, this is a very soft, sweet, sensual album that brings to mind, immediately, Sade. It’s not so adult contemporary as all that, and certainly has much more of a hipster vibe without the overproduced lushness of Sade. But goddamn, it’s a pretty amazing instance of a man who sounds like a woman; his voice is gentle, plaintive, and false in all the good ways. It’s a soulful, relaxing album. If Darkside made the late night album of the year, Rhye made the one to put on for some sexy time.

9. Weekend: +Jinx+: A lo-fi shoegaze outfit from the San Fran, Weedend’s debut album was so fuzzed out it was hard to hear the brilliant chord changes. Their follow-up peels back the reverb and gives Shaun Durkan’s sweet voice more of a melodic role (very much in the tradition of Brit-gaze delivery). Fans the Horrors or of earlier Charlatans will find these arrangements familiar, but it’s done so very well (and better, frankly). A beautiful, driving album—both because of the pounding drum work and because of the way this album yearns its way into your car stereo.

it’s synth-wave friday!

July 5th, 2013 by slewfoot

it’s synth-pop friday!

June 28th, 2013 by slewfoot

it’s synth-pop friday!

June 21st, 2013 by slewfoot

it’s new old-skool ebm friday!

May 24th, 2013 by slewfoot