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Indie 500, The Return: Squeeze, These New Puritans, Elbow, Tapes ‘N Tapes, Consequence, Atlas Sound, & Why?

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Indie 500, The Return: Squeeze, These New Puritans, Elbow, Tapes ‘N Tapes, Consequence, Atlas Sound, & Why?

Hello. My name is Vadim, and I’ve been a derelict blogger. I truly apologize; after filing my last column (2 MONTHS AGO!), it became increasingly obvious that running the next month’s gauntlet of wrapping up my undergraduate life forever, moving house (5 stops closer on the L! Woo!), and covering the Tribeca Film Festival would be hard enough without listening to anything but the same four albums over and over for comfort’s sake. (This mostly amounted to listening to the new, leaked Notwist a bunch, which was fab. More on this in the A.V. Club when it actually comes out.) Keith was kind enough to give me the time to tweak out on my own, and now I’m back (which is to say comfortably underemployed and reveling in it, at least for the moment). There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let me adopt a slightly superficial capsule mode for this round til we’re all caught up again:

Squeeze, Argybargy (1980): Let’s start here, if for no other reason than to wonder why no one copies these guys currently. Argybargy isn’t as rare now as when I first started trying to find it—a cheap copy went for about $15 four or so years ago—so eventually I just downloaded the sucker. Squeeze is generally considered a prototypical singles band—their collection Singles 45’s and Under is, in its way, about as essential as Singles Going Steady. Three songs are shared by Squeeze’s collection and this album (which you can find on BitTorrent in about five seconds)—indeed, the big problem is a total lack of momentum and cohesion. They really were a singles band, and it’s impossible to argue with the designated classics: the simultaneously revved-up and magisterial “Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)”, whose slamming chord changes resolve the first round in a dominant fifth rather than the expected root (these are the kind of nerdy particulars that separate egghead pop songwriters like Squeeze and XTC from the enthusiastic punks); the supremely slippery “Another Nail In My Heart,” which runs through chord changes like a person with a cold goes through Kleenex; “If I Didn’t Love You,” whose furious fugal structure accumulates almost as much momentum as “Common People.” But just sticking to the singles would mean missing out on gems like “Separate Beds,” a (stereo)typically British courtship ending in a marriage disapproved of by both mothers (“She thought I was on drugs”), greeted with cheerful indifference by the dads (“I helped him fix his car”), and ending in a unconsummated night (“So we could be together/in separate beds tonight”).

What do I miss about Squeeze (or, more accurately, what do I see in a band that peaked before I was born that isn’t around today)? There’s two schools of thought about what makes a songwriter a “craftsman.” On the one hand, there’s the kind of person who goes around cheering on Burt Bacharach, believing that every chord change is a precious thing that should be used as carefully as possible. Then there’s bands like Squeeze, cheerfully maximalist and generous, which makes their music fresh and unexpected, free of rote blues staples: I’m for the latter camp, obviously. But Squeeze sounds light: weirdly, their closest contemporaries are either The Shins (whose second album was extremely light on ‘80s production gloss, but had a hefty dose of energetic chord-changing to go with the acoustics) or The Fiery Furnaces (who coat a similarly light sound with plenty of occasionally gratuitous weirdness). Most bands now seem convinced that they have to back up twisty songs with a a distinctive production sound: I dig elaborate studio dicking-around as much as they next guy, but there’s something refreshing about hearing a band confident enough to believe that basic ‘80s production techniques will serve them well enough, thanks. Sonically, Squeeze sound like their peers; melodically, they don’t really sound like anyone else.

These New Puritans, Beat Pyramid (2008): I don’t know why, but I’m oddly fond of these British idiots. Trafficking in an irritable, stop-start brand of post-punk close to Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party (you’d think they’d have worn this revival out in three years, but not even), TNP are separated from their peers by little more than a particularly obtuse approach to lyrics (mostly of the old-school Talking Heads art-school variety: “Numerology” asks “What’s your favorite number? What does it mean?” over and over before laying out a definition for 1-10: 7, e.g., is surrealism, for no good reason; “En Papier” explains, with menacing clarity, that if they ever have any ideas, they’ll be sure to write them down on paper) and a love for the kind of jagged album structure where proper songs are broken up by 13-second ambient washes, the whole thing too fragmentary to ever get a handle on. (It’s not that far off from Dillinger Escape Plan’s Calculating Infinity, honestly.) Why do I find these guys more entertaining than, say, Liars? No idea—they seem more playful, I guess (insofar as this kind of music, which is grimly opposed to hooks, choruses, verses, harmonies or any of the other staples of most pop), more energetic and less overthought.

Elbow, Leaders Of The Free World (2005): Caught up with this as prep for reviewing the band’s latest (which is also quite good). I remembered Elbow from Cast Of Thousands, an album I found vaguely irritating when it came out: the opening song (“Ribcage”) was a neat redemption of the usual cliched uplift that comes whenever a gospel choir is invited to pitch in, and “Not A Job” was very soothing, but a lot of the music seemed half-finished, the songs resisting obvious power-pop hooks (which was pretty much all I liked at the time anyway—I was unaware that British bands had the option of not participating in Britpop) in favor of five-minute rambles. Well, either they’ve grown or I have—“Leaders Of The Free World” may be the best song I’ve heard this year. A furious, deliberately seething number, “Leaders” acquires power incrementally: first acoustic guitar and handclaps, then vocals, then bass, then the bass goes one octave lower, etc.—all leading to a chorus almost big enough for a Pulp song. And if we must have anti-Bush protest songs, then “Passing the gun from father to feckless son” is as succinct a line as any. The sheer, self-loathing hatred of daily routine on display—“I’m just counting down the days til I die… and the sickest little pleasures keep me going pulling teeth”—is a furious mirror for the kind of cliched post-grad malaise I’m going through. Elbow’s biggest problem as a band is that they care fuck-all about their image; they look like Manchester blokes who would stand and nod approvingly on the sidelines while Liam Gallagher lectured people on “proper music.” But they’re not; they’re pretty great, as it turns out.

Tapes ’N Tapes, The Loon (2005): If you’ve ever spent time reading British music publications (I don’t recommend doing this, but I was fairly obsessed with NME for a while because their writing was so sharp, even if their opinions increasingly turned sour on me), you’ll remember that they’re create-and-destroy hype monsters who’ll champion anyone who shows up as the new Oasis one week and slag on them the next; their turnover rate is as bad as McDonald’s. I frequently get the feeling that the American indie scene is operating much the same way these days. There’s been a lot of blather in various music mags about how blogs are destroying band’s development times; when Spin ran their cover story on Vampire Weekend, they had to be pre-emptively defensive: “they know their unprecedented rise—Vampire Weekend are, for example, the first band ever to be shot for a Spin cover before they’d even released an album—inevitably makes them a target of the very same machine that brought them this recognition,” Andy Greenwald wrote, “influential music blogs that champion unsigned, unheralded acts, only to turn their backs once those acts become signed and heralded.”

I’m pretty sure this will pass—there’s only so many Best Band Ever(s) that can be championed a week before people will get tired of this game—but something more dangerous, I think, is the myth of the sophomore slump. Tradition (or, more accurately, cliche) has it that a band/musician has their whole life to write a first album, then rushes an inferior follow-up in months. (I’d argue that a chance to hammer out one’s ideas in the studio and up your game live could only be a good thing for development, but what do I know.) And this idea somehow persists even when a band takes three years to release a follow-up. Listen up people: Walk It Off is the exact same album as The Loon, just a little denser and deeper on the production tip. I’d actually never listened to them before I had to review the follow-up; both albums are a pleasurable wallow in a tangled strain of messy guitar-rock. Pretending that they’re any different is just a knee-jerk “Oh, I’m tired of this now” response. (OK, the back half is a little weaker, but not nearly as much as the reviews pretend, and certainly not enough to generate reversal-of-fortune disdain.) It’s not as if the world we live in has made T’nT so ubiquitous that they’re sickening—and if you somehow live a life where that’s true, you really need to get out more.

Consequence, Don’t Quit Your Day Job (2007): The failure of Consequence’s proper debut album, while not exactly tragic, at least qualifies as puzzling and annoying. Of course, any rapper releasing his first album at 30 is courting irrelevance and dismissal, much less with an album thematically centered, in large part, around how annoying working at Banana Republic is. Still, there was every reason to expect the album to perform respectably—the fourth release from Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label followed the commercial barn-stormers of John Legend’s first two albums and Common’s unexpected (and frankly unwelcome) return to commercial prominence. But it bricked, getting out of the gate with some 7,000 units sold in the first week, eventually eking out 140,000 total—par for the course for the struggling rap industry, but you’d figure Kanye’s muscle would be enough to convince the American public to buy the unlikeliest stuff. (Again.)

A loose concept album, the first third focuses on trying to balance the day-to-day minimum-wage grind with rap-star dreams. A series of (kind of rote) romantic songs later, our hero’s Uncle Raheim arrives to crash for a few days, and Consequence frets about dealing with the parole officer and preventing theft. The dick-waving “Grammy Family” and a few tracks later, we’ve been taken through one young rapper’s journey from just another dreaming drudge to commercial success (rendering the album’s ultimate real-world failure that much more ironic). Consequence should be filed alongside the most-excellent Rhymefest, another Kanye associate whose Blue Collar sadly flopped a couple of years ago. Consequence isn’t in the same league as Rhymefest—who’s both a better technician and has a more nuanced persona—because he’s often allured by his own word arrangements to make them say anything outstanding content-wise. The stand-out “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly”—featuring Kanye himself—is a joyous victory lap, benefitting from the sheer momentum generated by Consequence’s unstoppable flow; better than most rappers, he seems to understand the spaces generated inside Kanye’s samples, how to position himself around the ghostly voices. As on his guest appearance on Kanye’s “Gone” (where he used “gone” in a different context in every line, the track is breathlessly ingenious in re-using the same three words over and over—maybe not saying much with them, but saying it very cleverly indeed. I favor blunter content, frankly, but Consequence still deserves champions and attention.

Atlas Sound, Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (2008): My theory about Bradford Cox is that he’s filling in the charisma void missing from indie rock; otherwise, he’d be nowhere near semi-famous. As frontman for Deerhunter, Cox made the band’s live reputation by wearing dresses over his tall, gaunt physique and scaring the shit out of the crowd; when I saw them last summer, he spent about half of the performance with what looked like the kind of hanging decorations you see over babies’ cribs dangling from his hand. Deerhunter are a sporadically inspired band, but I doubt they’d ever leave the noise-rock ghetto if Cox hadn’t galvanized their rep. He can also be a PR trainwreck, giving nasty interviews where he names someone by name as “a fucking bitch,” then has to publicly recant. Whether Cox’s genius for false controversy and stunts is unconscious or as coolly calculated as Malcolm McLaren’s remains to be seen (I suspect the former, not that it matters); in the meantime, Cox’s solo project is equally compelling: blah in proportion. With none of Deerhunter’s aggression, this is trippy ambient stuff that sounds like it’s broadcasting live from the brain of someone going pastoral while doped up on prescription meds and anti-allergens. This has the side-effect of making everything pretty much the same: whether chopping up screechy guitars or hoe-down fiddles, everything is looped, warped and narcotic. I guess I just prefer my ambient music unambiguously electronic, though people who aren’t bothered by tracks being indistinguishable from one another over the course of an hour (this isn’t just an ambient mental block I have—I’d lodge the same protest against latter-day Aimee Mann) may have more fun with it.

Why?, Alopecia) (2008): Serving belated, cursory notice that yes, I listened to this much-acclaimed wonder (recommended by many musically like-minded friends) and don’t really get it. The music is quite gorgeous, but the depression stops being clever half-way through and I wonder, if I’d just been a smidgen more articulate, if I could’ve gotten similar props for my self-loathing in high school. But we’ll never know now, will we?

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.

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Roma
Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.

Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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