Here’s this year’s theme.
(Oh please, it’s only been like a month. I’m perfectly on schedule.)
Here’s this year’s theme.
(Oh please, it’s only been like a month. I’m perfectly on schedule.)
White Lung – Paradise
I was really looking forward to this album, and I was also expecting it to be a big step forward from the already-great Deep Fantasy, which is pretty much the perfect setup for disappointment. Guess what though. What’s really amazing about this is, well, I mean, what was already amazing is just that this is a hardcore band that sounds modern and relevant in the year two thousand and whatever it is, and what was also already amazing is that they’ve continued to do better than that on every successive album, but what’s amazing about this album specifically is that it advances and expands the band’s sound and songwriting – smoother on “Hungry,” metaler on “Vegas,” mellower but still piercing on “Below,” and with a full-throated sing-along chorus on “Kiss Me When I Bleed” (which happens to be about bringing a child into a world of filth and despair) – while also not only maintaining but enhancing their basic force and intensity. It hits you everywhere at once, and it’s able to do this without being “experimental” or branching out into every available affect. It’s both propulsive and towering, both ethereal and bloody, both aspirational and wrathful, both artful and raw. The guitar parts take everything great that guitars are capable of doing and shift, sift, and swirl it all together into a single unrestrained style that speaks in its own new language. And the lyrics similarly confuse their emotional angles to alchemize strange substances and birth untaxonomized monsters. “Demented” insists that “you were born to ruin your life,” “I Beg You” “fights back like a full-blown rotten cancer,” “Dead Weight” is both hopelessly resigned and defiantly committed, “Sister” cobbles together a bizarre narrative out of degeneration and murder, the ironic skyward thrust of “Narcoleptic” comes across as borderline angelic, and “Paradise” is almost chill until it lashes back at itself and dies hard. So context aside, even, this is the kind of work that makes expectations irrelevant. Regardless of what you were expecting before, what you’re expecting now is for anything to even try to be this good.
And none of this “softens” anything; the music still radiates at maximum heat and the tone is still downright murderous. It tears through and apart its ideas in under half an hour while still feeling substantial and not rushed. But it doesn’t let you get all the way to feeling satisfied, because if you’re ever satisfied with anything, you’re doing it wrong. “You are never safe from yourself.” Which is to say not only that this album is deeply impressive but that the explanation of the source of that impressiveness itself is instantiated within the music, itself. This band has developed by taking what they were already great at and doing it harder, and better, and they’ve become something different by doing that. “I’ll give my heart out, I’ll bleed until I’m cold.” This is sort of like the mirror image of reinterpretation. Any one thing has its limits, but one way to overcome those limits is to take what you’re doing all the way through, such that you come out on the other side making the same connection in a different place. The result is that this is more than a cool punk album, more than an exiting new sound, and more than great music. It’s revelatory. (More later.)
Seratones – Get Gone
In addition to possessing strong songs and commanding vocals, this band is just immediately amazing on the level of raw sound. They’re at the extremes of both talent and intensity, and they apply those things towards something original and real. Like, really. This is one of the more “official” declarations I’m going to make here: this is an exciting new band that should by rights be going places. I mean, I’m not particularly optimistic about our society’s ability to recognize quality, let alone greatness, but also hot damn.
On both academic and impressionistic levels, this is an exhilarating combination of lots of different styles and sounds. Hardcore speed and noise, blues rhythm, metal solos, country smoothness and rich, resonant vocals are all pounded together and built up into something that sounds like the good parts of everything. It’s basically a super-drug. And it’s not just like “a bunch of different stuff”; it all works together as a new whole. It’s not a game of identify-the-influences; I’m actually not much of a historian myself. “You can feel it any way you like it.” You just listen to it, and it’s good. That’s why it’s worth bothering to do things like this.
So the band performs this synthesis on a basic sound level, and they do it over the course of the album, so you’ve got the thrash and rush of “Choking on Your Spit,” the calm flow of “Tide,” the long, tough swagger of “Get Gone,” and the slow and soft but also super loud closer “Keep Me,” and they also do it within the contours of each song. “Headtrip” cruises steadily into a wild solo and drum rush before closing off with a solid slam; “Don’t Need It” chills out and then swings back twice as twisted; “Take It Easy” is half what it says, with a second face breathing fire and glaring dread; “Kingdom Come” underlines its gospel tones with slamming rhythm and taut flair; “Chandelier” hits hard “like the rising sun” on the verses and “takes its time” on the chorus, with a stylish drum break setting up the final blow. The singer croons, shouts, shoots straight, rambles, laughs, and wails; the guitars are punk when they’re not classical and metal when they’re not bluesy; the drums can max out the speed, smooth out the tempo, or kick out the jams.
I’m not so gauche as to go overtly political here, but this stuff actually is sort of relevant to certain of our present situations, so I want to get at least halfway to making a point. I think we should try to focus on a little more on the fact that multiculturalism is not about fairness or noblesse oblige or what the fuck ever and is actually about actual greatness, and is furthermore about fun (they have a non-album song called “Necromancer,” which is so named because it raises the dead). This album doesn’t sound like some boring shit like “equality” or “diversity” or whatever; it sounds fucking awesome. It’s the same thing, though. This is the advantage we have as the people who are on the real right side of things. We can compel adherence to the truth. “You’ll hear me whether you want to or not and like it.” Not that you’re obligated to like this specific music or anything, but if you find yourself put off by things you can’t pin down, you’re doin’ it wrong. Being able to synthesize makes you stronger than simply sticking to one gun.
I don’t want to have to talk about this. It’s kind of insulting. Reducing experience to ideology gets it backwards, but things are already backwards; the only reason we have to talk about anything is because there’s a problem. I don’t know if there was ever a time at which things could have been done the easy way, but it is certainly not that time now. We need both things. “A bullet needs a gun to make a kill.” And we’re not going to get anywhere until we turn this around to aim forwards.
Tancred – Out of the Garden
So I saw this band open for somebody and I honestly almost missed them completely; I only caught the tail end of their set, but they sounded pretty good and I got a good feeling about them (“Pretty Girls” made an immediate impression; it’s a song that’s just weird and silly enough to work). So it’s a good thing I ended up checking them out, because this is a really excellent album. Seriously; I just relistened to it and I was blown away all over again. This was pure luck on my part, but I guess you could take it as kind of a lesson. You have to pay attention and follow up on shit. You can’t just show up, eat your complimentary shrimp cocktail and leave.
Sound-wise this isn’t a revolution or anything, in large part it’s your basic wordy head-case rock band (that’s actually the joke in the first track name), but the songwriting here is extremely killer. It’s constructed out of the basic ingredients of thrashy guitars and monologuey vocal lines, but there are a lot of smart flourishes and invigorating touches – the comedown at the end of “Bed Case,” the superconductive transition between “Hang Me” and “Sell My Head,” the dip before the chorus on “Poise,” the fake ending on “Control Me” – that give it an insistent personality and also make it an exciting, forward-sounding listen. Also on display here is an extreme facility for sharp endings.
It’s an album that takes you on a journey, but it’s one of those journeys where you get lost at every turn. “The dark can take you for a ride. Fair warning.” “Bed Case” is a disorienting intro based on a deep emotional ambiguity, and “Pretty Girls” is definitely not a calm or satisfying ending. It gets dark and introspective pretty frequently (“Not Likely,” “Pens,” “Sell My Head”), but it’s just as quick to lash out (“Rabid like a dog, I could take you out. Don’t test me”); actually, it tends to do both at once. It stomps and storms as often as it shrinks and shivers, and it synthesizes both of those affective styles into one maelstrom. It spins wildly through angst, black humor (“I would kill but a girl’s got poise”), horror, and viciousness, all while being deeply at odds with itself (“It’s crazy how stable I am”), and there’s a disturbing emphasis throughout on casual self-annihilation (“Write my name, cross it out in shame, burn it up, blow away.”).
As the title implies, this album is about living after the fall, but it’s not trying to fix anything or even trying to figure anything out. It’s just about what it’s like to exist in this situation, and the results aren’t pretty. The opener asks itself, “Do I want to save the world, or just cut out its insides?”, and as things go on it becomes pretty clear what the answer is. It’s not depressing in terms of tone, but a lot of the lyrical content is really deeply resigned, while also making frequent use of violent metaphors (“kill” seems to be the singer’s favorite word). Nothing here makes a grab for positivity or even hope, and all that self-annihilation stuff, while not appearing to directly indicate suicidality, takes its toll nonetheless. The songs don’t take the angles you expect them to take, and in not doing so they unearth disturbing emotions as familiar as they are weird (the album art is oriented wrong and it only has a fragment of a person on it). “Bed Case” establishes that it takes place not in between heaven and hell, but in the space where they overlap. “Poise” doesn’t try to make a feminist statement; it just admits that “I would kill to be one of the boys,” and then puts the emphasis on “kill.” “Control Me” inverts the usual positive spin on its subject matter, “Hang Me” is a self-directed witch hunt, and “Pretty Girls” is pretty harsh statement of defeat.
But what all of this actually means is that this is an album of productive irony. If you actually heard someone say, “Kill me just like all your other puppet girls; make me want you,” and you thought they meant it, that would be pretty fucking horrifying, but of course a) if you’re actually saying that, it means you understand what’s going on, and b) even more of course, this is a song, so what it’s actually expressing is the fact that the truth of the situation is being faced and dealt with rather than papered over and ignored. Meaning that this actually is the response to this situation. The gap between the album’s hopeless negativity and its badass rock intensity isn’t a gap; “Pretty Girls” actually is a big rock ending. As dark as this album is, what it has is better than brightness. It has vitality. It’s the farthest thing from a final solution, but, y’know, a lot of the time that’s a good thing. It’s the complete inverse of insisting on one correct politics of response (which is good, because we all know by now how bad that sucks): it’s an insistence on honesty and engagement, no matter how fucked up you have to get in order to do that. “I’m dead into the things you want me to shout”; “I’d feel better in a crypt than up there with you”; “Inside your claws, a million snakes”; “Show me all your teeth.” Maybe none of this is any good, maybe it’s even worse than nothing, but it is where we are right now, and no one is going anywhere until we understand that. “This is how we learn to be happy: the hard way.”
The Kills – Ash & Ice
Descriptors like “mature” or “confident” are classic faint praise, so I’m going to have to come up with something better, because this is actually a great album. The Kills have always stuck to their guns, and that doesn’t change here, but this is the album on which they become more than themselves. One way to make transcendence work is to keep doing your thing so hard that it ends up having no choice but to become something else, to embrace your chains to the point that they stop being chains. This is a Transcendence Album.
The songs tend to open with out-of-context techno beats (on “Let it Drop” this almost amounts to trolling) before the guitars whip them into shape and the neck-breathing vocals draw them close. But this doesn’t turn them all into the same thing; in fact, the songs are wildly diverse to the point that the album almost feels incoherent. It jostles left and right between radically different tones – distant disco on “Hard Habit to Break” gives way to harsh soul on “Bitter Fruit,” and then to a weirdly dazed march on “Days of Why and How.” The second half brings the slowness with the arhythmic blues of “Hum for Your Buzz” and the passionate (negative) simplicity of “That Love,” alternating with the punchy desperation of “Siberian Nights” and the menacingly dense “Impossible Tracks.” And there’s never a big moment that brings things into focus; it builds intensity only to jealously hoard it. There’s nothing inaccessible about it, but it’s inconvenient enough that you have to take it seriously.
But there’s a deeper level on which the album coheres, on which all of its twists and shards are ultimately one thing. It aims less to slash or bludgeon and more to get under the skin, or even to haunt, to get too close for comfort. “Silence is the loudest shot.” For starters, this is an album about the meaning of constraints. It “wants strings attached, unnatural as it feels.” At the same time, it claims to be “easily led,” “by whatever you like,” but its stylistic stubbornness suggests that this is more like a horse being led to water and refusing to drink. Staying where you are, or giving yourself to someone or something else, or holding onto something regardless of whatever else happens are all choices, and every choice is a constraint. “I never took off my chains; they never took my colors.” And there are a lot of different chains in this world: loyalty, compulsion, circumstance, intimacy, fear, and death. “Doing it to Death” is really the opposite of what you would expect – far from being a passionate commitment, it’s practically resigned, the loopy rising-and-falling guitar line evoking the nausea of eternity. “When the waves come, you face them, and you know we can’t stop it now.” But you can also just keep doing it, “night after night after night,” even if “the plans we’re making are the shape of things that never come.”
Maybe you can tell that I don’t actually have this figured out all that well. That’s the thing about an album like this, though. You can keep coming back to it and keep getting turned around in different directions, and you don’t even have to be looking for anything. The gorgeousness of obvious closer “Echo Home” fakes a serene and uplifting ending, because it’s not actually the closer. It’s followed up by the extreme crescendo of “Whirling Eye,” which doesn’t feel like any kind of ending at all. It just keeps building up intensity towards nothing, like the whole thing is just the pressure drop presaging the real storm.
Ramonda Hammer – Whatever That Means
This band really did something for me this year, although I don’t have a particularly good idea of what that something actually is. I saw them the first time with zero expectations, and their music struck me in a way that doesn’t normally happen. They’re all amazing performers, as skilled as they are energetic and committed, but there’s also something more, behind the technical aspects. I guess it’s what you’d normally call “heart,” but I usually try to be a little more precise than that.
Straight guitar lines and consistently anguished vocals give the songs a basic angst-ballad backbone, but there’s quite a lot going on on top of that, fleshing them out in many directions at once. Lofty and spacious lead guitar parts add both precision and intensity, expansive drumming pushes outward as well as forward, and the bass jolts up and down to stitch everything together. It’s all in the service of broad song structures that reach out as far as they can while still holding solid (the closer is at least three different songs fused together). In a sense, there’s nothing notable about any of this, it’s what is conventionally referred to as a “rock band,” but that concept is a real concept that exists for a reason. It’s four different people doing different things that, through physical and emotional intelligence, resolve themselves into one thing that could not have been created in any other way. I think now is a good time to remember how this works and why it matters.
And while the sound is somewhat complicated, not so much leading you down a path as overwhelming and then gradually devouring you, underlying it all is an extreme simplicity. “Angsty” doesn’t really do the vocals justice; the singer pretty much always sounds like she’s in between crying jags. Opening the album with the words “It’s hard to explain myself,” the lyrics are often very basic sentiments, drawn out and awkwardly phrased (“I make sounds and I make them sound good, but they might not be the thing”). “If, Then” moves slowly, emphasizing the indirectness of its title, but this is where it ends up:
If you’re hearing this song, then I’m something
If you’re singing along, then it’s something
If you’re crying like I am I guess that’s something
I’m not the only one who feels like nothing
Except that then the album is also conflicted on this point. “Goddamn Idiot” concedes that “these are just my thoughts; they’re not always right, but they’re always loud,” “See” specifically accuses itself of a lack of depth, and then “Out of Style” is an extended metaphor. The result is something that’s completely straightforward, while also being, in the same sense, hopelessly tangled. It’s all loud and grungy and anxious, but it’s also got a real dramatic sweep to it – not in any kind of epic sense, just in the sense that it’s the inherent drama of being a person. “Just know that I’m trying, I promise.”
None of this is actually what I’m trying to figure out, though. Analysis is all fun and games until you realize you have no idea where you’re going with it; you can explain everything right up until you get to the part that matters. But for now I’ve got about a third of an idea. “Chaotic” has been popping into my head a lot. The line is “if it’s not chaotic, it’s not real,” which first of all is literally true. The universe is just a big pile of objects; “order” is something that we impose on top of it, while the things themselves remain as they are, impervious to our attempts to understand them. Reality always slithers out from under our concepts. Accordingly, within the song, the line is a little difficult to decode – it’s drawn out and dramatized such that the cadence and the meter are both misleading, and it’s followed up by a wordless version of the same howled phrase. So when the song comes into my head it’s not as an idea or even in response to anything in particular. It’s just a sound, a raw sensation that’s inside of me. It’s a new part of you that’s going to be with you going forward. Even if you don’t know what it means.
I ran into this review of the new La Sera album before I had gotten around to listening to it and it basically irked the hell out of me. The specific claim at issue is that the album is “pretty but defanged,” which first of all is kind of an annoying thing to say in general, and also it’s one of my buttons, and it’s the kind of thing where you know you’re going to be thinking about it instead of being able to just pay attention. Like, I got over it (since I know you were worried), and I also realize that the review itself is not making a particularly substantive claim and is basically just a random #content fragment, but I think this is a fairly common confusion, and it’s also something that the album in question addresses as fangfully as possible. So, personal idiosyncrasies aside, I’m gonna go ahead and hit it.
La Sera’s obvious Thing has always been Katy Goodman’s distinctive singing voice. It’s impossibly high and sweet – “sunny” is a difficult adjective to avoid – but it’s not small or distant in the way that high voices sometimes are. It’s engaging and enveloping, grounded in a subtle but solid forcefulness. She’s a good singer, is what I’m saying. And while this gives the project an immediate obvious appeal, Goodman doesn’t rest on her laurels. She’s been at it for a while now, and she’s been advancing her songwriting and pushing into new areas the entire time. Which is actually where the confusion comes in. The new album is rather bluntly titled Music for Listening to Music to, and the addition of guitarist and occasional vocalist Todd Wisenbaker as a permanent bandmember, combined with slightly heavier production that melts soft vocals into an oceanic guitar sound, makes it feel less quirky and more professional. As a particular point of contrast, the previous album, Hour of the Dawn, had more of a hard-rock edge, opening with the relentlessly driving and mercilessly cruel “Losing to the Dark.” So whereas the new one is basically a country/western album, which classifies it pretty definitively as Not Punk, it’s easy to understand this as the “smoothed out” version of La Sera, in the way that wrong things tend to be easy.
Let’s start with the end – that is, with the fact that this album ends sad. “Too Little Too Late” isn’t just about failure, it’s specifically about doing your absolute best and facing up to the fact that it’s not enough. Think about what this means in the context of a polished and professional album that’s part of a consistently successful career. No matter how well you’re doing, there are always regrets. It’s always too little, and too late. You might, for example, be an experienced musician doing your best work, only to find that, at the height of your powers, you still can’t accomplish what you wanted to. Or you might be a fan, committed to “always find the voice you love and follow it until it fades,” and you might find yourself at the point where that actually happens, abandoning you before you were able to grasp what you were after, leaving you with nothing. This takes direct aim at not only the album itself, but also at you, at the thing you are doing by listening to this music. The approach this album is taking is not at all naive; that’s not what the title means. The sorrow in the vocals weighs the whole thing down like a curse, retroactively haunting the rest of the album.
Which is to say that, at the same time that this album is bright and enjoyable, it’s also pretty consistently sad. “I Need an Angel” is a cute title for a cute song, but it’s not actually a positive sentiment. It’s desperation. The whole point of that phrasing is that angels don’t exist. Saying “I need a miracle” specifically indicates that the thing that you can’t live without does not exist in the real world; you’ve “tried all your luck” and you’re still screwed. That’s pretty fucking hardcore. And, on balance, most of the album lives in similar territory. “One True Love” is the opposite of what both its title and its tone imply: “The woman I love, she said she’s running away, she’s leaving me today.” So if that was your one true love, y’know, that has certain implications. “Take My Heart” is equal parts devotion and despondency: “it’s the only way I know to live,” and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A sharp guitar line slices through the chorus, creating an emotional gap that deepens the sense of ambiguity. The delivery of “do you believe in me?” makes it clear that this is a real question without an easy answer – it may even be that either possible answer isn’t really going to work out.
But it’s not that simple either; these aren’t just songs that sound happy but are secretly sad. Each song does what it has to to get its point across; the issue isn’t which means of expression the album uses, it’s that its means of expression aren’t restricted. This applies both on the macro level, to the conception of this as a pop-country album in the first place, and on the micro level, where each individual song is open to sounding silly or maudlin if it needs to. This is where you fail when you’re looking for things that sound “intense” or “tough” or whatever. You’re living in the shadows. And even if it’s a shadow cast by love, even if the conditions you’re setting are ones born of justified devotion, they’re still stifling.
“Shadow of Your Love” is an extremely down song, but it’s not depressing so much as it is a genuine lament. It’s a sympathetic acknowledgment of the limitations that people inevitably place on themselves, often for the best of reasons. But that sympathy doesn’t go very far, because it’s just the fact of the matter that “nothing grows in the shadow of your love.” The negativity here points to what’s positive about the rest of the album: it stands in the daylight, and that requires a toughness that no amount of screaming or thrashing can match up to. “Are you with me now? Have you ever been?”
And all of this is happening at the same time that this album is smoothly written and just really nice to listen to. So the most basic version of the point here is that trying to categorize things as “hard” or “soft” or whatever is just a dumb way to go about it. Pop songs and hardcore songs are equally capable of childishness; basic songwriting can reveal hidden emotions as easily as complexity can obscure them; explicit inaccessibility can be a challenge or it can be defensiveness. There are a lot of different ways that things can get inside you. “Eyes can meet a thousand ways.”
See, even if you go back to Hour of the Dawn looking for something “harder,” you’re just going to get hit by the same force moving in the opposite direction. The album cover shows Goodman, face obscured, rocking out against a clear blue background while wearing a Poison Idea shirt.1 There’s nothing contradictory about any of this. It’s expressing a total situation that can’t be understood though a myopic focus on individual aesthetic effects. “Running Wild” sounds exactly like its title, but the content turns it completely around. Like the inverse version of “Shadow of Your Love,” this song is also doing both things at once: it’s sympathizing with the motivations that lead a person into this situation, and simultaneously clarifying why things can’t work that way. It’s just a fact that “running wild” is useless when you’ve “got no place to go,” in exactly the same sense that “nothing grows in the shadow of your love.”
Just as Music for Listening to Music to makes its point even as it’s being as cute as possible, Hour of the Dawn makes its point even as it’s going as hard as possible. As mentioned, the first song, “Losing to the Dark,” is both vicious as hell and totally hardcore, tearing the album open with an extreme immediacy. But conceiving of it as a “fuck you” song is too simplistic. For one thing, it’s actually positive, declaring the singer’s intent to step out of the darkness and into the light. But the context of this affirmation is that the singer has been losing this entire time, and that this has been happening because of love. Meaning it’s a love song. The fact that it’s about how love can be a evil force doesn’t change that fact; in fact, it enhances it. It’s a song about being in love, about one of the things that being in love can be like.
In short, aesthetics are non-trivial, and this is true even when you’re talking about something as dumbed-down and overcooked as the concept of the “love song.” You can think of Music for Listening to Music to as an album full of “love songs” if you want, but that doesn’t work as a criticism, because a love song can be just about anything. In fact, it doesn’t really get you anywhere. Even when something really is just a verse-chorus-and-such song, there are still a lot of different ways that can go.
“A Thousand Ways” makes this point explicit. “Love can be cruel, gone and wrecked this town”; “love can be real, it can stick around.” The serial variations on the chorus, rising in intensity, affirm that love can do all of these things. It’s not one affect; it’s a force. Sometimes it’s comforting, and sometimes it’s devastating. Love does not preclude claws. Quite the opposite. In other words, what La Sera is doing here is exactly what they’ve been doing from note one: aiming for the heart. There is nothing more vicious than that.
As though intuiting that this was all too subtle for people, Katy Goodman recently teamed up with Greta Morgan of Springtime Carnivore to produce what is essentially a master’s thesis on this very topic. Take It, It’s Yours is a covers album that redoes classic punk songs in an old-timey slow-pop style. Its approach is very consistent: low-intensity, wall-like synths create a background of noise, simple guitar parts set the basic song structure, and huge vocals shove all the way to the front. This has interestingly different effects on each song. “Bastards of Young” comes across pretty similarly to the original, but it’s refocused towards a different corner of the same emotional space; “Ever Fallen in Love” makes the opposite initial impression but ultimately draws up the same underlying feeling; “Pay to Cum” is completely unrecognizable.
This is easy to understand as a gimmick, so it’s crucial to emphasize how wrong that is. Like, sometimes this kind of thing is done as a joke; you take an “aggressive” song like “Straight Outta Compton” or whatever and you have someone with a little girl voice sing it over acoustic guitar, and it’s like, ha ha, that’s so funny, like it’s different from the regular thing. Take It, It’s Yours is the exact opposite of that. These songs are not ironic in the dumb “joking” sense of the term. They’re ironic in the correct sense of the term: they use context to convey additional, extra-literal information. The contrast is there, obviously; that’s still part of the point. But it’s part of a real point. In one sense, these songs feel reverent, like hymns to dead gods; in another, they’re explicitly blasphemous, intentionally destroying a lot of what people liked about them in the first place. But the stronger impression conveyed by their simplicity and directness is that they’re just songs. They stand on their own; their reinterpretive aspect isn’t required in order to feel what they’re getting at.
Let’s look at “Bastards of Young” a little more closely. The original has a very explicit “angry young man” affect that is closely tied to its meaning. So you might think that if you don’t have that, you don’t have the song; you might even think that that’s the entire thing that the song is, that attempting to remove it can only be an exercise in point-missing. Under this interpretation, aesthetics only operate on the surface, they don’t point to anything deeper. In which case aesthetics are meaningless; it doesn’t matter one way or the other if you “defang” something, because the fangs never sank into anything in the first place.
As a matter of fact, I saw another band cover this song earlier this year. They were a pretty straightforward rock band, and it was a pretty straightforward cover. This would seem to be uncomplicated: a perfectly “faithful” cover, one as close to the original song as possible, should consequently get as much of the original meaning as possible. But this is precisely the shallow understanding of aesthetics that we need to avoid. There wasn’t anything wrong with the performance, it sounded good and everything, but it was basically just “here’s a song you recognize.” Instead of pointing to the same thing that the original song was pointing to, or turning it around to point to something different, it merely pointed to the original song itself. Insisting on intensity can enforce shallowness; trying to be cute can create complexity. Staying as close as possible to something can drive it further away. And given that this song is about emptiness, this approach misses both coming and going. If you’re trying to express an “unwillingness to claim us” and the fact that you’ve “got no one to name us,” claiming it and naming it is kind of the opposite of what you’re after.
That is, there’s nothing wrong with doing a faithful cover, it’s just that . . . well, I’m going to have to get a little bit technical here, because I’m about to use the word “essence,” which is not something that someone in my philosophical position can just throw out there, so I need to be clear about what it is that I’m talking about.
That is, there’s nothing wrong with doing a faithful cover, it’s just that, either way, what you’re aiming at is the essence of the song.2 Essence is not real, but it’s also not magical; it’s a concept. The essence of an apple is what you infer about it from all the different ways you can physically interact with it. So the essence isn’t the “complete” or “ideal” version of the apple, because there’s no such thing. The essence is simply (or not so simply) the aggregation of all potential apple-experiences. The catch is that this isn’t a fixed thing; it doesn’t all add up to the One True Apple. Different people are going to have different reactions to different apple-aspects. If you lived on an apple farm as a child, apples might, for you, be inseparable from the concept of childhood. For someone else, who is allergic to apples and has had a near-death experience from accidentally eating one, the smell of apples might evoke the nameless terror of the true void. And the way you feel about apples might be the way I feel about oranges.
So a) things have different meanings for different people, but b) these meanings are contained within (or at least represented by) the same physical object, and c) the same meanings can be reached through multiple distinct physical means. Does this mean that there is no connection between subjectivity and objectivity? Uh, I fucking hope not, because that would pretty straightforwardly imply pure chaos on the level of meaning. The subjective aspects of the object are what matter, but they can’t be aggregated into any kind of understanding of it, both because they are potentially infinitely many and because subjectivity is not accessible to investigation in the first place. Rather, what it means to understand things is to use objectivity to get at subjectivity. It’s not really a bridge, because subjectivity is absolutely unreachable, but it’s sort of a signpost.
If you’re traveling and you’re trying to find a certain town, there are different ways you can go about it. You can look for signs to guide you there, or you can consult your map, or you can survey the geographical features of the area looking for indications of civilization, or you can ask someone. And maybe your map is out of date, or maybe the person you’re asking doesn’t remember things quite right, but all of these things will still, in some capacity, point towards the thing you’re looking for. Whereas if the terrain changes, if a rockslide blocks off a path or something, this is no longer the case. Nothing about the sign itself changes, but now it doesn’t actually point to anything. It is no longer capable of directing you to the town. Someone has to make a new sign. And a sign whose only purpose is to point to another, already-visible sign isn’t particularly helpful. The artist is the person who has at least some idea of where we need to go.
A song is also an object, albeit a complicated and loosely-defined object, so the same principles apply. The subjective aspect is far more obvious: of course people’s subjective reaction to music is the part of it that’s actually active. That still doesn’t make it magic; a songwriter produces something that can be written down and understood by others, and a performer takes specific physical actions to produce explicable phenomena. But the purpose of these things remains to get to subjectivity, so if you just copy the actions themselves without trying to get behind them, what you are engaged in is mimicry without understanding. You’re working off an old map that doesn’t account for the current terrain. You can do a faithful cover, but you can’t expect it to be a simple apples-to-apples comparison. As a counterexample, I saw another relatively straightforward rock band do a cover of the Pixies’ “Debaser.” It was also a faithful cover, and it wasn’t like a revelation or anything, but it was messy and deranged in a way that drew out the “slicing up eyeballs” aspect of the song. It pointed at something.
The Morgan/Goodman version of “Bastards of Young” is essentially a mellowed-out version of the original, but this doesn’t flatten the song’s intensity; it draws out the sorrow and earnestness that were masked3 by the original’s aggressiveness. It’s a different means of pointing to the same essence. And of course this means it’s not going to work for everybody, but what must be realized is that this was equally true of the original song. This understanding has always been there, and the Replacements themselves are actually a great example of it. They used their “young, loud, and snotty” style to great effect on songs like “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” but they also used that same style to convey naive confusion on “Sixteen Blue,” self-pitying resignation on “Swingin Party,” and anguished desperation on “Answering Machine.” Eyes can meet a thousand ways. Raw power has a healing hand, and it can also destroy a man.
For any song that is meaningful to you, there is someone out there who heard it and actively hated it, and someone else who heard it and had no idea how anyone could possibly care about it one way or the other. So if you really think that there’s something there in a song you like, you should want it fucked up in as many different ways as possible. Assuming this is being done competently, it will broaden the general understanding of the thing that you care about. And if there’s a band you think has something to say, you should be happy to hear them trying different things, including or even especially things that are foreign to you. Not just for the sake of others, but also because you don’t have it all figured out either, and an honest challenge from someone you trust is invaluable guidance towards doing better.
In a sense, what’s happening on Take It, It’s Yours is that these songs have all been redone as “love songs,” but because the results are so strong while being, at first glance, so divergent from the originals, what this ends up doing is problematizing the typical “love song” concept. Because these covers don’t actually change anything in this sense; they reveal that these songs were all love songs in the first place. This version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the song that Danny Fields called the one true punk song, actually feels like it’s the original; it makes the Stooges version sound like the ironic reversal. Because of course it does, because the song was always a slow, tragic love song. And it’s not like it’s an anomaly or anything; songs like “Touch Me I’m Sick” or “The KKK Took My Baby Away” are also love songs. These aren’t a bunch of different songs being redone as the same thing, they’re a bunch of different songs being redone as themselves. Love can do all of these things.
Again, aesthetics are not shallow. A “love song” isn’t one thing, and neither is a “punk song.” Any affect can achieve lots of different effects. Aesthetics are also not neutral. You can’t just redo anything in any arbitrary style and have it mean the same thing. If the only purpose of aesthetics is to put a wrapper around stuff you could just say directly, then aesthetics don’t actually do anything. This is not a contradiction. Words aren’t neutral, but you can theoretically use words to express anything you want. In fact, the reason you can do this is because words are not neutral. Contextual connections are what give words their power. In the same sense, what makes any particular aesthetic mean something is the situation in which it exists. Punk meant one thing at one time, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that thing anymore. Actually, that isn’t even it; punk never did mean “one” thing; like love, it was always a force. The obvious paradox of punk has always been that, if punk is about rejecting traditions and standards and doing your own thing, then as soon as punk comes into being and sets a standard, you’re obligated to reject it. But this is only a paradox if you’re an absolutist. All it really means is that the true meaning of punk is that there is no true meaning of punk. It’s yours.
So I guess I should stop beating around the bush and get to the fact that there’s an obvious political angle here. Saying that something is “pretty but defanged” is basically equivalent to saying that it’s “too girly.” Y’know, speaking of the fact that aesthetics aren’t neutral, the idea that “hardness” is better than “softness” is some pretty basic patriarchal ideology. Everybody gets this backwards: feminism is not an ideological imposition that ignores the obvious truths of reality. It is merely the insistence that ideology be visible, that ideals be justified and not simply assumed as the “natural order” of things.
(While I’m certain that you’re not so unsophisticated as to claim that I’m “overthinking” this, I’ll go ahead anyway and clarify the fact that I’m not. I’m just telling you what I learned from these albums. The fact that music is so unsusceptible to analysis is part of what makes the attempt so useful. It happens to you without your permission, so then you have to go back and figure out what the hell just happened. I’ll spare you the diary entries, but “Running Wild” and “Shadow of Your Love” are both direct criticisms of me. When I first listened to “Running Wild” I noticed that the lyrics were kind of weirdly perpendicular to the tone, and then I started to sort of understand what they were saying, and then I got the hell scared out of me when I realized the song was about my exact situation and behavior. This is the type of thing that becomes possible once you stop trying to line things up properly in boxes and start listening; it is the sense in which apolitical statements are the most political of all.)
So the fact that the songs on Take It, It’s Yours are essentially “girlified” versions of songs that are known for being “manly” makes a non-trivial statement about both the songs themselves and the context in which they are being understood. As maleness is taken as default and femininity as fetish, the masculine versions of things are always considered “normal.” Per the title, Take It, It’s Yours insists on its own normality, and it also insists that you insist on your own normality. The slow, dreamy version of “Pay to Cum” is exactly as justified as the psychotic rush version, and so are the thousands of other versions that people have not yet imagined, because they’re strapped in to the notion that only certain types of people are allowed access to certain affects. We live in a big, complicated world, where many apparently contradictory things are true at once. Multiple simultaneous approaches are required to deal with any issue of substance. Until we start understanding this, we will never be able to understand anything.
And this is why creating “music for listening to music to” is not a simplistic retreat from significance, but rather the basic precondition for significance to exist in the first place. It seems insightful to say that something that’s just “fun” or “pleasant” to listen to is empty, that it doesn’t do anything, that it’s ear candy. This sounds incisive, but it’s actually nihilistic. It denies lived reality in favor of unattainable ideals; it puts meaning eternally out of reach. The fact that music sounds good to listen to is a real thing, and that’s only a problem if you conceive of real things as fake versions of ideal things. This is backwards. The point of ideals is to help us get to reality. The ideal doesn’t supersede the thing itself, it outlines it from behind. Clinging to ideals means hiding in the shadows of reality. If you have to choose, you choose earth, because the experience of living is the only thing that we actually have. Music is for listening to.
So, I mean, the obvious contradiction here is that I’m explaining why you should be able to listen to a record without explanation. Indeed, Music for Listening to Music to is fairly impressionistic; it resists analysis, in this sense. You’re not supposed to respond to it by . . . doing the only thing that I know how to do. In fact, it’s worse than that, because I’ve kind of been screwing around this whole time. The first song on the album, “High Notes,” addresses the situation as directly and completely as can be done in two minutes and five seconds. If you’re actually listening, there’s little else that needs to be said. So, in the spirit of things, I’m going to go against my instincts and let this one take care of itself. This is yours:
A little girl pulled me aside and said I wouldn’t make it through the night
Well thank you darling, this I know
I threw a look over my shoulder towards the guys who look dissatisfied
I’m sorry, is this song too slow?
Well I can’t sing it for you just the way you want me to
I might be tall but I’m not half the man you thought you knew
I’ll hit the high notes, wink as you walk by
I’ll sing a sad song, smile as you cry
Taking the high road, look me in the eye
Time waits for no man, old man, I’m saying goodbye
Well, here we are. I, um . . . okay. Listen. It’s been a while since I’ve had any faith left to lose. I don’t believe in the American system of government, I reject the legitimacy of the ruling class, and I do not listen to anyone who thinks they’re the boss of me. Whoever the president is, they’re never my president. So from that perspective things actually make more sense now. The fact of the president being an entirely loathsome person clarifies the situation, because the presidency is an entirely loathsome office. When someone occupies the office who’s cute and charming and who seems like a good person, it confuses things. It makes you feel like maybe they’re on your side, when they are necessarily not. So I would like to be able to say, non-ironically, that this is fine. It doesn’t matter who the president is, the government is just lizardpeople playing musical chairs, and you remain free to live your own life. But only one of those things is true, and only provisionally.
I was intellectually prepared for this to happen. Ever since Trump was accepted as his party’s nominee and started polling within standard margins, this has been a potential future, and anyone who didn’t understand that has no business discussing politics in public. But this has never been about politics proper. For a long time now, this election has been about whether we are going to live in a society of uncaring technocratic management or a society of vicious childishness. The former of those things is bad, but the latter is not even basically compatible with human dignity. It hurts to know that we’ve made this choice.
I don’t want to care. I knew that America was like this. But even my cold, cold heart is aching at the reality of it. I was normal-sad yesterday, but today I’m completely annihilated. I feel like I’m wandering through a badly-written short story, a tangled mess of cliches. I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth, the bile is rising in my throat, my head’s in a vice, I’m short of breath, my vision is blurred, a black cloud hovers over me. My torso has been hollowed out and pumped full of some kind of toxic miasma; I don’t want to open my mouth for fear of what’s going to come out. This election has poisoned all of us. Everywhere I look, it’s dumb fucks as far as the eye can see. I live in California; we performed our function, but that doesn’t matter. I maintained optimism as the numbers started coming in, but I simultaneously realized that, either way, we had already lost. Seeing the real, live numbers brought home how many people have failed in their most basic human responsibility: to not embrace the void. The blight is everywhere. It’s not going away.
It’s been bad enough with Trump just being constantly in the news, an engorged penis poking itself into every available orifice, but now there will be no respite. He’s going to deliver four State of the Union addresses; we’re going to get his commentary on every tragedy and disaster; he’s going to dictate our priorities and set our agenda. He didn’t just win an election. He won everything and beat everyone. Donald Trump was right about everything. He never had to restrain himself or kowtow to common wisdom. All the intellectuals were against him and they were all wrong. Everything he bragged about was true, all of his deranged accusations were valid, all of his insults stuck. He is a real, homegrown American success story. The society we live in is one where Donald Trump gets whatever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants it. He grabbed America by the pussy, and she let him do it.
I don’t value success. I value people who do good things that matter to other people. The common pseudo-feminist argument that Kim Kardashian is deserving of respect because she’s a successful businesswoman is exactly backwards: that’s precisely why we shouldn’t respect her; it’s the real, non-aesthetic reason why she’s a bad person. In the same sense, the notion that Trump is a “failed” businessman or a “cheater” or a “con artist” is beside the point. He’s not bad when he fails, he’s bad when he succeeds. His actual goals are bad. Being rich is bad, and being president is bad.
So, again, I shouldn’t care. But I do. The thought of someone like that being in power, his smug satisfaction at his own triumph, the throngs of lackeys and careerist hacks scrambling over each other to suck his dick, all of it makes me sick. This isn’t even what matters; I should be worried about all the people who are actually in harm’s way now, and I am, but I can’t let this go, either. I’m not that generous. I didn’t think I had any respect left to lose for American society; I genuinely thought the floor was higher than this. I didn’t think there was any farther to fall. I was wrong.
I was at a show yesterday. I wasn’t really thinking much about the election at the time; I’m of the belief that there’s no point in worrying about things once they’re out of your hands, but in retrospect I’m glad I wasn’t alone. All day today I’ve been unable to stomach the sight of everyone going about their lives as though nothing were wrong, as though this were just a wacky plot twist in a sitcom. I mean, what else can you do, but at the same time I can’t bear the thought that no one really cares. I think that’s the worst thing of all: not the zealotry, but the complacency. But yesterday I was among people who cared, and who were sad, and who weren’t going to let it stop them. The feeling of dread in the air was palpable, and that was honestly encouraging: there remain people who understand that there is something to dread. There were a number of mini-speeches about how to handle it all, which honestly were not entirely on-point (not that I blame anyone for trying), but the thing that got through to me was that this is real and that isn’t. They’re the ones faking it; we’re the ones living our lives. Politics is something we have to deal with, but it’s not what matters. We have to keep supporting each other and keep doing the things we care about. There’s no such thing as saving the world; we are creating the world constantly through our actions, so we have to be conscious of what it is that we’re creating. If you don’t do this, if you tell yourself that you care about things but you never actually do them, then you are guilty of the only sin. You’re a coward.
So if there’s any consolation here, it’s that our responsibilities haven’t changed. Our responsibility either way is to resist, and that will continue to be our responsibility for as long as the ruling class continues to exist and to pursue its endless mission to destroy everything we care about.
Here’s some music.
Light observations on a recent Screaming Females show. I went though a few phases with this band. At first I just thought they sounded good, and I honestly felt like their songs were kind of whatever, but I eventually came around. The fact that their songs are engaging but not terribly easy to get a definitive handle on is the point (it might even be intentional, although who cares).
Seeing them live clarifies a few things, the most obvious of which is that Marissa Paternoster is a demon. Both the unrealistic facility of her shredding and the deep intensity of her singing are entirely piercing. I’m really not the romantic type, but this just isn’t the same thing as being good at playing music. It’s magic. It’s not, however, an explanation. The other members are just as impressive and just as important, it’s just that they have less flashy jobs. More than that, they are crazy tight as a band. They actually stretch their songs out a lot live, with lots of solos and extended bridges and soforth, but none of it feels superfluous. Their cohesiveness makes it feel like they’re not showing off; for all their intensity, it feels like they’re working. Maybe this is kind of an obvious thing to be impressed by, but I was impressed regardless. It was invigorating, and I don’t feel invigorated very often.
So they’re kind of the Platonic ideal of a rock band, and this is somewhat unexpected, because they present themselves in the opposite manner. Their major theme is ugliness, which is reflected in all of their album and merch designs. It’s aesthetic-ugly and not ugly-ugly, of course, but it still conveys the sense of initial off-putting-ness that is the salient part of ugliness as a concept. And they have the expected corresponding lyrical preoccupation with the “down” side of things, i.e. failure and misery. So because of all this and because they just hit harder than hell, it makes some amount of sense to think of them as a punk band.
The first time I saw them I was actually thinking a little about how you would classify them (not because that matters or anything, but just because you wonder about things sometimes), and seeing them perform I suddenly felt that it was overwhelmingly obvious. They’re a metal band. Assuming one does not understand genres reductively, this straightforwardly describes the type of music they play. They have expansive songs filled with squeedly solos and big theatrical vocals. And they’re not really that noisy; something like Dinosaur Jr. is a relevant point of comparison, but Screaming Females are more precise and clean without going all the way into pop songwriting (and they actually have quite a facility with slow songs). They’re about as far from three-chord thrash as you can get while still being a rock band. In this sense, metal is the opposite of punk: in lieu of simplicity and directness, it focus on musicianship, complexity, and theatricality (actually, metal is sort of pop hardcore, when you think about it).
If this all seems obvious, that’s great, but people sometimes have difficulties in this regard. There was a guy in the merch line talking about how this was “totally a punk show” and “bands are so tame nowadays” and blah blah blah (and using the precise “sick, bro” demeanor which you are currently imagining), and I just felt like this was a really sad perspective to hold (as well as being a deeply ironic way to feel about punk, of all things). You imagine that there’s some kind of holy grail out there, and you spend all your time looking for it instead of noticing everything else that’s going on. And even when you think you’ve found it, the only thing you can actually see is what you’re already expecting. Like, there was Bad Moshing at the show, which is fine, I honestly don’t even care, it’s just that I feel like people are using pre-scripted fake engagement to avoid real engagement. You can mosh to anything that’s loud and fast enough, so, like, go ahead, but if that’s all you’re doing, if that’s the only point you can conceive of music as having, then what you actually have is nothing. This is what’s so toxic about the idea that “things used to be great and now they’re not like that anymore.” When you think this way you both ignore everything that’s actually happening right now and reduce anything good you find to a shallow veneer of idealized aesthetics. Bands are like this right now. This band is like this right now. This is what it means for a work to possess immediacy.
This was, of course, the point of punk itself, to the extent that there can be said to have been such a thing. Speed and intensity don’t necessarily characterize punk music – “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is a slow love song. And it is actually this tradition that Screaming Females is upholding, just by being a working band that keeps moving and doesn’t pander. They used to close with “Boyfriend,” their punkest song, but they cut that in favor of doing “Criminal Image” with multiple Big Rock Finishes, after which they explicitly refused an encore with a throat-cutting gesture to the sound person.
Regarding the moshing, Paternoster did the obligatory thing and reminded everyone to not be violent assholes (she’s smallish, so there may have been some personal relevance there), and it’s the fact that this is obligatory which is the point. Musicians understand the situation, but people haven’t caught up yet. There’s a sense in which this is as it should be – if artists weren’t ahead of their audience there wouldn’t be any point – but it also feels like it’s been a while and we’re still working on these basic problems. You obviously have to have some kind of pretty strong self-motivation to be doing this sort of thing, but I feel like it must still be frustrating, to be trying to convey something non-trivial and to have people interpret you in the most trivial way possible.
So, you know, you can approach things from whatever angle you want, obviously. But it’s sad to think that people are missing things that are right in front of them, just because they think they already know what they’re looking at. It’s limiting. There’s more going on than just the stuff that people always talk about. The way something looks isn’t the same as what it is.