I went back to my hometown of Austin for a few days last week, something I do twice a year to catch up with a few folks who haven’t moved, and also to eat BBQ and Tex-Mex (a decent fall-back if you’re in the area and short on time, but featuring one of the worst websites known to man: if you click on that, be prepared to hear uber-hack Pat Green singing “Have some tacos and beer and let ourselves go.” Tacos and beer! Sodom trembles.). Since I stopped buying CDs pretty much when I got to college, everything I have back home is an automatic nostalgia trip: I will never know any albums as well as I know these, though I’m not sure I want to reclaim the circumstances that made me learn them inside-out in the first place. Back when my income was, um, considerably more straitened, every used CD purchased (new albums? Ha! I was bankrupting the RIAA before it was cool) was a thoughtful investment, to be played something like 8 times each at a minimum. I’d spend hours trolling half.com, freakishly absorbing what the basic price for every CD was, then comparing it to whatever copies I found. This could quite satisfyingly fill up a lot of hours and, as a high school loser, I had a lot of hours to fill.
These albums still sound really good to me, although I feel kind of pathetic blasting Girls Can Tell or Lapalco whenever I pull into a parking lot, like I’m the cranky old man who won’t shut up about some Neil Young show he saw in ’73. “I know about Fleet Foxes!” I want to yell. Of course, no one cares; still, I feel weird about reverting to the old when, for the past few years, I’ve been racing through albums with such alarming speed (rare and exceptional is something that grabs me more than three times) that I can’t remember half of what I hear anymore. And then there’s David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, an album I always re-approach a little gingerly. I don’t write about everything I listen to; e.g., I’ve been blasting Low for quite a few months now, working myself into it, with remarkably little to say. At first, all it really did for me, oddly enough, was deepen my appreciation for what Gary Numan’s own peculiar synth project was all about, and how distinctive his version of synth songwriting was from Eno’s. Low is also—massive, undeniable influence apart—still a difficult album to write about or parse, equal parts impenetrable and stupidly obvious (until you embrace how dramatically the bass drops down and the vocal wails kick in, “Weeping Wall” can seem like an embarrassing exercise in Orientalist kitsch).
Seems to me that Hunky Dory is the last time Bowie was hanging back and outside of his “generation”; after that, the gloves were off and he’d dominate the zeitgeist with effortless eagerness ’til decade’s end. “Changes” is a great song (and an unlikely hit single), but Bowie can’t identify with anyone explicitly: “These children that you spit on,” he chides, “are immune to your consultations / They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” The pronoun being “they,” and Bowie’s presumably somewhere else, positioning himself God knows where. “Changes” is somewhere between a much smarter version of some awful late ’60s ballad about the new generation and/or, depending how you feel about these things, a blueprint for Bowie’s continuing persona shifts to come. I think it has more to do with the album proper than his much-insisted-upon chameleon qualities: Bowie’s persona shifts were internally consistent within each album, but Hunky Dory is a grab-bag of whatever’s around, and probably better for it.
Bowie’s always been a cover fiend, but there’s arguably four here: not just “Fill Your Heart” (an early example of how to rehabilitate a bad song and bring out the melodic goodness underneath: Bowie skips over the simplistic lyrics as if they were so much metrical dross, which—given, if nothing else, the excellence of songwriter Paul Williams’ Phantom Of The Paradise contributions—I’m willing to believe is a valid approach), but his twin tributes to Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan (more ambivalent than most would give them credit for), capped off with “Queen Bitch,” which outdoes Lou Reed (and sets the template for the glossy treatment Bowie would rehab Reed with on Transformer). Indeed, the second half of the album finds Bowie increasingly retreating into his influences. Then there’s “Quicksand,” the kind of song I only find myself listening to when I’m listening to the whole album start-to-finish, and that’s a damn shame. No matter what the spiritual allusion/Nietschze is supposed to be, it’s hard to find a whole lot of distance from a song which instructs “Don’t believe in yourself” and “Knowledge comes with death’s release.” (The Delgados start here, presumably.)
Mostly what I got from re-listening to Hunky Dory (and let’s not even get into “Life On Mars?” or “Oh You Pretty Things,” a song without which no liberal arts college party is complete, apparently… at one point, it seemed as mandatory as any given Belle & Sebastian track) is a renewed sense of the depth and complexity of Bowie’s catalogue. Whenever I get disgusted or burned out with keeping up with current musical trends, I half-jokingly threaten to quit everything for a year and spend a solid year investigating every nook and cranny of Bowie’s catalogue (except maybe that one stupid fucking album with Peter Frampton on guitar). Listening to Hunky makes me feel that reading a truly comprehensive Bowie bio (any suggestions?), and spending a year with Bowie, would be as rewarding and illuminating as finally reading the complete Orwell, my other goal. I’m glad there’s so much to look forward to.
Speaking of Austin: I was in a shitty high school band, just like everyone else there. The band wasn’t technically mine, but instead a co-production of one Eric Wilson (who, among other wonders, casually saved my social life from utter disaster senior year) and myself, backed by a motley but game crew of semi-competent drummers and one massively stoic, stoned bassist. Our name was unimportant (read: embarrassing, at least to me), our run a mercifully brief 6 months. It can safely be said that the project, uh, “never realized its full potential.” The one thing we did that made us seem like a real band was that we split up over “creative differences.” (Also, I couldn’t—and still can’t—fucking sing. Which was a problem, since I sometimes insisted on it.) Those differences, in brief: I wanted to write 3-minute pop songs. Eric wanted us to cover “Sister Ray.” The end was obviously nigh. Since then, Eric’s gone through a variety of incarnations that just weren’t for me. But the demon ghost of garage rock is lying a little more dormant these days, and The Spirit of Space is kicking ass.
A 2-hour runway wait at JFK (what the hell is going on over there?) put me on the ground to just catch the last half of their set: suffice it to say that it turns out there’s a way to cover “Psycho Killer” that isn’t actually boring, which was news to me. Eric and his trusty crew put on a show that’s tight, catchy and—most importantly—loud. So yes, I’m pimping my high school buddy’s band; deal with it. They’re quite good and if you’re in town, one of their shows (sometimes free!) should hit the spot, assuming you don’t mind being surrounded by much cooler kids my age. Eric’s also become quite an excellent engineer, and the band’s latest product—This Machine Kills Rhythm; 10 songs in a zippy 27 minutes—is pretty immaculate, though the show is better. Over at MySpace, I’d recommend listening to “Dream Girl,” a morose kind of doo-wop thing with a very neat chorus and “Outside,” which has a very cool minimalist guitar solo. (If you want to see what I was running away from, the undeceptively titled “Velvet Jam” is also on tap.)
While I was hanging out at Eric’s house, I also heard one of his roommate’s songs. Taft (also in the band) has what Eric described as “a genius pop song that’s going to take over the world,” and that’s hopefully not far off. Go here and marvel at the biggest chorus I’ve heard in a while (second version preferred, although for my money it’s reiterated one too many times). In a late-night moment, I described it as “Maroon 5 meets Orange Juice,” which kind of grossed out its creator. But I meant it in a good way.
And now we slay the beast that is The Dodos. I’ve been grappling with Visiter for a while—longer than I would under normal circumstances, but it was enthusiastically recommended by trustworthy colleagues, not just the usual Pitchfork dipshits. The fucking beast is an hour long, and what I’m supposed to do with that exactly I don’t know. The Dodos are two guys—Meric Long plays guitar and sings, Logan Kroeber avoids getting tied to a drum kit with all kinds of tricks (which include tambourines tied to shoes, a touch too cute for me). As two-man duos go, they’re preferable, I suppose, to the endless raft of so-called couple-rock ensembles making the world an even twee-er place than I can handle (e.g. Matt & Kim) or another shitty blue-rock band trying to get at that sweet White Stripes action. Ah, but I keep forgetting we live in a bold new age where all that’s passe (right?), and The Dodos represent (be still my beating heart), among other things, “campus-quad pop, art-punk, and communal, lo-fi folk” (aren’t these the same damn thing? Did the campus somehow get cut off from the art school?) and companions to “new-primitivist bands.” Which is, I guess, supposed to be descriptive rather than pejorative, but I’m not sure why we’re all supposed to be celebrating pseudo-childlike innocence (which generally annoys me) and the deliberate refusal of sophistication. These are the same people who find XTC too “clever,” I suppose, which is when music criticism starts seeming like some weird updating of old, ingrained 20th-century British prejudices against people who are “too clever.”
Chip on my shoulder showing yet? Anyway, I guess it’s no surprise that I’m not much of a lad for the long-form musical explorations, especially if there’s only two of you: there’s five songs here over six minutes, and only four under three. When The Dodos are short and concise, they’re right up my alley: for my money, their best moment is “Park Song”, which I predictably like because it’s melancholy and quiet. “Time to cut my hair and get it parted” leads, with faultless if unexplained logic, to “I think she thinks I’m retarded.” But the short rule certainly wouldn’t explain a rude blast like “It’s That Time Again,” a series of unpleasant trumpet blasts punctuated by banal sentiments like “Be my love again.” I’m not sure when the brass from Close Encounters’ mother-ship became the preferred sound of the moment; presumably Beirut has a lot to answer for. A lot of the longer songs lead, almost as a matter of course, from an interesting verse to moments where the song speeds up, Long starts abusing his slide-finger like an acoustic Jack White (or moments that just seem to owe an odd debt to John Lee Fahey), and/or everything degenerates into a tangle of percussion with little-to-no discernible order or method. Which may be very exciting live, but isn’t so much on record.
I’m not sure why bands like The Dodos annoy me so much: they’re preferable to most things, some of their songs are quite good, and they’re surely talented. I guess it’s that I’m really all about song structure, with the occasional exception, and The Dodos aren’t: they’re about a show, and talent, and the songs come not as an after-thought, but not as the main attraction either. Like most music writers (I suppose), I’ve always wanted to be able to sustain, if not the musical omnivorousness of the late John Peel, at least his ability to never get stranded in whatever tiny corner of the musical landscape I’ve marked off for myself. Bands like The Dodos always threaten to leave me behind, and no one wants to feel irrelevant, especially when I haven’t even hit 25.
Video round-up will probably not be a regular feature here, but a couple of things deserve your attention, one good, one reprehensible. Naturally, the reprehensible thing is more fun to talk about: Arcynta Ali Childs, a reporter with way bigger balls than mine, recently spent an afternoon following Thug Slaughter Force, a Brooklyn posse I sincerely hope to not run into on the street. Their thesis statement “No Tight Clothes” is entertaining if, at 5 minutes long, really pushing the novelty value further than it can stretch. The video pulls no punches: “Wearing tight clothes by men may result in feminine tendencies, homosexuality, possible yeast infection, severe hemorrhoids, permanent wedgies, and genetically inherited transsexual characteristics in your son.” TSF is just smart enough to hedge their bets (albeit way too transparently) during the interview: “It basically boils down to: You are in a homosexual attire, and you are claiming to be something else. ... That’s what I have a problem with—not the homosexualism. You’re a front artist, and you’re promoting homosexuality with your actions and dress code, but you’re promoting gangster lifestyle with your lyrics. The two don’t match up.” Sure, sure. TSF don’t actually deserve that much shit: they’re just inept enough to not make them a real threat. (I adore Clipse, but there’s no doubt that when they rap out “You fucking faggot,” it stings that much more because they only use it once and they seem to really mean it: it’s reprehensible, duh, but they’re great rappers and if W.C. Fields survived despite revelations like “anyone he met whose eyes were not considered normal by American optical standards, he imagined to be a Nipponese spy,” I’ll chill.) What’s really scary is that they’re obviously tapping into something: e.g. an unnamed NYPD officer complaining “This movement of everyone wearing tight-fitting clothes—it’s not nice,” as if they were pissing on the street or punching old ladies.
More fun is the unlikely 11th-hour semi-resurrection of Weezer. I have no intention of listening to their latest album (judged a debacle all round, apparently): “Pork ’N Beans” is bitchin’, and I’m happy to leave it at that. But the Hootenanny tour they’ve embarked upon has yielded some neat videos (even though I’m unsure when Rivers started modeling himself on Jason Schwartzman in The Darjeeling Limited), most notably the band leading a small-high-school-marching-band’s worth of people in a very nice acoustic version of “Creep.” It’s very cute to watch near-contemporaries with comparatively little staying power cover their longer-lasting contemporaries’ only massive single, and I bet if you recorded this version with a decent mic it’d be revelatory. The song co-written with fans, however, is shit.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.