Just realizing things

Although basic hints of frustration showed over the course of the past few years, it was during the last six to nine months that I realized writing music reviews on my site had often become more of a chore than a joy. I started writing them on a whim in my first (very tiny) apartment many, many years ago, with no set time period for how long I would continue. Now a decade has passed along with several large life changes (almost all for the good, fortunately), and I feel like I’ve reached a good point to slow my output.

I didn’t come to this decision easily. I wrangled with it for a couple months, going back and forth between wondering how I would continue to discover music on the margins and even how my weekly schedule would change. Looking back, I can’t even really come up with some sort of way to quantify how much time I’ve spent doing music reviews, and if I could, it would probably just make me a bit depressed. In Malcom Gladwell’s new book Outliers, he makes the generalization that 10,000 hours spent practicing a skill will likely make someone a master at that skill. Over ten years, that averages out to only about 1000 hours a year (which I have easily reached if I include time spent listening critically to music), and I’m certainly no master, so perhaps that’s another sign it’s time to hang things up…

Because my brain is wired a certain way, it seems like I always go back to numbers, and in looking through the basic data on my review site, it makes me realize that I’ve been more than a little obsessive over the course of the past decade or so.

I dropped my first music review onto the internet back in late 1997, and since that time I’ve written over 2350 more. A couple years back, I started doing podcasts for my featured review each week, and have now done well over 200 of them. I’ve reviewed CDs by over 1535 different artists (not including various artist compilations) and very nearly 800 different record labels. The labels that I’ve written the most reviews for are Matador (68), Kranky (64), and Warp (60). The artist that I’ve reviewed the most is Squarepusher (9), with The Orb and Autechre coming in a close second (with 8 apiece).

Of course, this sheer quantity led to what I felt was a general degradation in the quality of my writing over the course of the past year or so, although some could certainly argue that it’s been lacking from the start. What I’ve come to realize is that it isn’t the simple act of writing reviews that has ground me down, it’s simply the quantity. I still love music and love writing about it, but to pour out 4-5, 500 word missives a week turns what originally seems like clever lines into cliches at a quick rate and unique adjectives into descriptors that wear out their potency from overuse. A thesaurus comes in handy for awhile, but at some point you feel like you’re saying the same thing over and over again about a CD that has some fine moments but doesn’t really move you as a whole. In fact, I think I’ve used that very line a couple times now. Sigh…

And that’s really where the burnout comes in. I still hear music on a fairly consistent basis that manages to really move me, and there’s no denying that (or even holding back my praise for it). At the same time, when a person listens to sometimes 10-20 different “new” releases a week, a fair majority of those are simply going to filter into a pile that’s either “good” or even worse. Heck, I’ve been in several bands now, and I’m completely used to being ignored. It’s good for your soul (or at least very humbling, or something) to find a CD you spent months (and in some cases, years) writing and recording selling for only a dollar online. As a writer, I don’t feel any particular joy in saying any of the aforementioned about someone’s hard work.

That latter sentence actually ties back into something that I’ve gotten a lot of good-natured (mostly, I think) ribbing about from friends. That is, of course, that my reviews tend to skew to the positive side of things. Going back to the numbers thing again, I even did up a little chart to show how the 2350 reviews on this site break down in terms of numerical rating…

Ratings Chart

Looking back at my output over the years, there are definitely releases that I would have to go back and change the rating based on not only changes in my music listening patterns, but also on how my level of critique has evolved. Essentially, I was even more of a softie when I started out, and that’s probably saying something considering I very, very rarely give anything under a 5 or so rating even nowadays. I think it’s safe to say that you can be even-handed and even somewhat nice in the review business, but the reviewers who get to be well-known are the ones who aren’t afraid to absolutely shred something.

Over the course of the years, I have done just that a couple times, but again it brings me no real joy, so there is that.

In the end, I just feel like I need a bit of a small change. I’m still going to continue to write, but now the focus will be only on things that I really enjoy. That may mean that I write one thing a week, and it may mean that I still write more, but instead of having to write about things that I don’t feel excited about, I’m just going to pour out the words over things that really do it for me. In addition to writing about music, I’ll write about books (occasionally) and other stuff if it strikes my fancy. I’ll also have commenting open and the reviews themselves will tend to be a bit more on the personal (and in-depth) side.

I’m also excited that I’ll finally have a little more time to start going back through my collection and re-listen to a lot of things that I haven’t heard in awhile, since I’ve been known to fret about that sort of thing.

If you’ve been a reader of my site, I thank you a ton for your patronage. Remember to swing by the new site, I think it will be fun.

I hinted at it during my last post, but I’ve been thinking a lot about lyrics lately, both in regards to the musical project I’m working on as well as the music that I listen to.

I’ve always been sort of a casual absorber of lyrics in songs, and while I appreciate well-penned lines, bad lyrics aren’t something that will kill a song in my mind if the music surrounding them is good enough. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule, but it’s rare to find a song with lyrics so absolutely awful that they obliterate well-crafted music.

On the other side of things, there are artists whom I appreciate for their solid word crafting skills but whose music leaves me feeling absolutely bored. From this angle, it’s near-impossible for great lyrics to rescue a song that’s poorly written, so perhaps I am a bit biased towards the musical side of the quotient.

Great lyrics are fairly subjective, but it’s a part of the current musical project that we haven’t been willing to ignore or even take shortcuts on. In some ways, it’s held us back at times, looking not only for a good phrase, but the perfect phrase for every moment (not only in descriptive ways, but at phonetic and other levels as well). In doing so, there have been levels of analysis and research that I haven’t found myself working at since I was in college.

In saying the above, I know that many of the references and lines and phrases used within our songs won’t be understood by a good portion of those who listen to our music. That’s not to say that we’re working at a higher level than other lyricisits, although on an immodest level I am very proud of them. Instead, I think it simply goes back to that notion that a good portion of people (including myself at many times) appreciate great lyrics, but at the same time aren’t going to spend a great deal of time poring over lines and then making connections between phrases to find threads of ideas that run through songs and even albums themselves.

I think that the aforementioned sentiment has a lot to do with what kinds of lyrics I myself find to be the most engaging. I like lyrics that tease me a bit and give me clues and provide themes without spelling things out in always-obvious ways. Albums like OK Computer by Radiohead have always drawn me in due to their sometimes obscure references mixed with pop culture commentary and reflections of human life in general. I don’t want things to be spelled out perfectly, rather I want something that I can interpret a bit and come to my own conclusions about while having some lines that stick in my head at the same time.

Some people will call that pretentious, and that’s fine to me. I’m sure that the lyrics I’ve had a hand in will come across as obtuse to some and obvious to others, but as mentioned above, I will say that the process in writing them has (so far) made for some some of the most frustrating, interesting, and creative writing moments that I’ve had in the past ten years. It’s all a learning process, and that’s a good thing.

As a rather serious music collector, I know that I can’t be the only one with this problem, but it’s something that has bugged me a little bit each of the past time I’ve put CDs onto my shelf and into my collection.

I often wonder when I’ll simply have the chance to listen to not only a particular piece of music again, but the CD by it, and the CD by that, and the crate of records sitting on the floor by them all. Compact discs have now been in the commercial marketplace for over two decades now, and even many modest collectors I know have aquired five hundred or more CDs in their collection. On the more serious side of things, I also know people with between 5,000 and 10,000 CDs in their collection.

Although my collection falls far, far below the 5,000 mark, I still cannot comprehend when I’ll have a chance to actually sit down and listen to a good portion of my actual collection. I have a lot of music in my iTunes library and my 20 GB iPod is almost full, but shuffle is the best way to sample the collection and even then it’s only a sampling. Sometimes I simply get a bit bummed out looking at things in my collection that have been neglected, trying to give face time where I can by grabbing something when I’m running out the door to drive the car somewhere.

Not only that, but in addition to what I already own, I’m listening to new music weekly (probably 5-10 new albums minimum), so my actual time to devote to older albums is dimished as well. I know lots of people who download at least as much music and have external hard-drives full of 25,000 songs or more. Listening to a collection that large would take non-stop play (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) for well over three months (assuming 10 songs per album) just to hear every song, and once again, that doesn’t include anything new added to that collection in that time span.

Am I going to have to wait until retirement to hear some of my collection again? Will I even like some of it by then? Do I need to take a break from new music for awhile? Help me out here people…

It’s taken some time to come to terms with it, but it seems that I’ve always been a much better singer in my head that in real life. I was kicked out of choir in junior high because the teacher said that I was tone deaf. This was no problem with me, as it allowed me to take two periods of art class, my favorite at the time.

Later on in high school, I decided to go out for choir again, and under another teacher I actually found that it was something I really enjoyed. My last two years of school, I even took part in swing choir (along with full choir), wearing the goofball cumberbund, bow-tie, and all. Yes, it was all very cheesy and I’m sure that if I saw videos of myself from those days I would cringe, but my teacher was pretty open-minded and let my overzealous friends and I actually choose a lot of the songs we’d sing. We picked semi-obscure songs created from William Blake poems and to this day I can rattle of lines like “Tyger, tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / dare frame thy fearful symmetry” in the same melody we sang them in roughly 13 years ago to date.

In college, I gave up on choir because everything got much more serious than I wanted to be, but I found myself drawn to and imitating singers like David Gahan and Morrissey in my spare time (away from the ears of anyone near). On the drives to and from college (5 hours each way), I’d sing myself hoarse while alternately simply having fun letting loose and trying to keep myself awake on the long stretches of road.

Post-college, the first band that I was in didn’t force the issue too much. Our first release was largely instrumental and lyrics were both buried in the mix and/or filtered heavily, turning them into what was basically another textural element rather than something most people would consider a full-on vocal recording. Our following EP had one vocal outburst from myself, and despite lots of practice and many, many takes, it’s still something that I was never quite happy with. A couple friends who heard the song stated that they preferred the instrumental tracks on that short release, solidifying the view in my head that my vocals somehow killed the momentum of the title track.

All of the above said, the past two weeks or so have been spent recording vocals. It’s the vague musical project that has been in the works for over a year now, and quite a leap given my somewhat uneasy past experiences with my own voice. With every single song there’s now an acclimation period, where I literally have to waste at least ten takes just getting used to the sound of my own voice in the mix, and usually many, many more after I re-listen to recordings with fresh ears and hear even more things that bother me. Instead of masking everything in filters or burying them in the mix, vocals have become a focus of tracks instead of a quiet textural element. It’s a heck of a lot of fun, but a bit frightening as well.

It’s all sort of a new experience, even though I’ve been through some of it before. Standing in a room with my computer and/or one other person knowing I have as long as I need to get it right is completely different than standing out in the middle of a big empty studio space while five people stand behind glass and give pointers and the clock ticks on a four hundred dollar day. In some ways, though, that ability to endlessly re-record has forced me to become an even more harsh critic of myself as I rediscover the limitations in my (admittingly not so great in the first place) vocals and then try to play on what strong points there are.

At several points during the process, I simply wondered if the whole vocal thing should simply be scrapped and songs should be taken back to instrumental form, but at some point along the way a breakthrough or two happened and now vocal tracks simply feel “right.” I’d get laughed right out of the room at an American Idol audition, but I guess time will tell whether these things sound as good to everyone else as they do to me.

In the time since I last updated (which was many moons ago), I had a nice long holiday break in which I both relaxed and got a lot of things done. I thought about posting here a couple times, but didn’t really end up feeling like it.

One of the things that I did in the past three weeks was move my office/”studio” from the living room of our house into a room upstairs. We finished remodeling a room after a couple months of work, and I decided that an actual desk and chair would suit me better than sitting with my legs at awkward angles under the coffee table. The new space is very comfy, with hardwood floors (and rugs for sound dampening) and walls that are painted mocha with a faint blue-grey ceiling. It’s very cozy and seems to be working out much better than my cluttering sprawl in the living room.

I’ve had a record sleeve frame for some time now sitting in the basement with a Johnny Cash record in it, but figured that the new studio called for something new. I decided to let the patron saints of electronic pop music watch over me and in a completely unintended touch the artwork actually matches the walls nearly perfectly.

Oh, and music has been worked on. Yes it has.

New office and studio

Back when I was in college, I wrote a music and entertainment column for the campus newspaper for three of the four years that I was there. At the end of each year, I’d devote a single column to picking out my favorite album artwork, because as a music lover, the artwork and packaging has always played a large role in how I perceive the music that I listen to. Granted, I can enjoy albums that have poor artwork, and on the other hand dislike albums that have amazing artwork, but it always seems a little more special to me when it seems like the artist (or label) put some time and thought into designing the packaging. In this age of trading MP3s and iTunes, it sometimes feels like it’s going to turn into a lost art, but I still have a deep appreciation for some fine album artwork.

I’ve reviewed all of the below albums on my music review site (except the Shedding, which will be upcoming), and the following (ordered from top to bottom) releases may or may not be included in my forthcoming favorite albums of the year list…

Benoit Pioulard - Precis
Benoit Pioulard – Precis
Although this was just released in the CD format, there’s something about the cover photography and typography of this album that reminds me of an old LP from the 70s. It reminds me of a dream that I once had where I was following someone at dusk on a hot summer day and I could never quite catch up to them and see who it was…

Tortoise - A Lazarus Taxon
Tortoise – A Lazarus Taxon
Swiss police officer Arnold Odermatt’s post-accident photographs provide haunting and yet oddly serene (no victims or blood) artwork for this set of Tortoise b-sides. Considering the title of the release (which refers to an organism disappearing from the fossil record, only to re-appear later), the devoid-of-humans artwork is perfect.

Keith Fullerton Whitman - Lisbon EP
Keith Fullerton Whitman – Lisbon EP
The hyper-saturated cover shots on this EP perfectly capture the feel of a foreign land as seeing it for the first time. Colors seem more vibrant, even smells that may be familar seem somehow more exotic, and sounds (accents, life in general) prick your senses and make you feel a little more alive for having experienced them. This artwork captures that invigorating feeling and makes me want to go overseas again.

Joanna Newsom - Ys
Joanna Newsom – Ys
It’s totally Ren Fest, yet there’s something about this cover that beguiles me a bit. Maybe it’s because I would enjoy having someone paint me to see how it would turn out, but like great portrait paintings, her eyes seem to follow you wherever you go. Combined with a lovely embossed sleeve (that reminds me of a fancy book slipcase), the overall packaging for this one is a gem.

Venetian Snares - Cavalcade Of Glee And Dadaist Happy Hardcore Pom Poms
Venetian Snares – Cavalcade Of Glee And Dadaist Happy Hardcore Pom Poms
Ha! And you thought this list was going to be all pretty pictures and fuzzy wuzzies! I can’t quite explain my enjoyment of this cover, other than that it seems to bring out the inner gore-hound in me. It’s one of those insanely-detailed cover art renderings that makes me look closer when seeing it from a distance and then feel weird when I crack a smile after realizing it’s a couple cows getting vivisected by a Rube Goldberg-like device. I’m a vegetarian, but I honestly have nothing against cows.

Phonophani - Phonophani
Phonophani – Phonophani
This isn’t even the best work from Kim Hiorthoy (my personal fave of his is probably the Scorch Trio – Luggumt album), but there’s something about this blob of bright gradients that tickles the fillings in my teeth. I remember damn near filling notebooks (I was obsessed with blobs of color) with similary-shaped crayon drawings when I was about 10, and it’s like he read my mind and updated it with a digital touch.

Triosk - The Headlight Serenade
Triosk – The Headlight Serenade
Depending on my mood when I’m looking at it, this cover can take on totally different feelings. The first time I looked at it, it reminded me of being out in the countryside and seeing the grass sway before I turned off the car lights and sat on the hood to look at the stars. Another time I looked at it, it made me think about evil things lurking just out of site. A great, mysterious photo.

Shedding - What god doesn't bless, you won't love; what you don't love, the child won't know
Shedding – What God Doesn’t Bless, You Won’t Love; What You Don’t Love, The Child Won’t Know
A bat-like, but seemingly benevolent creature rises above the mist while schooners with horse / rabbit / dog-like creatures float on a sea of their own tears. Further panels are just as odd and whimsical, and the artwork is just the right amount of light and dark, playful and creepy for this sprawling, found sound ambient release.

Glissandro 70 - S/T
Glissandro 70 – Glissandro 70
A lo-fi, discarded paper and glue reconstruction of the old-school West End disco label sleeve, the light-hearted and ramshackle feel of this sleeve seems to fall in line perfectly with the music contained within.

Arthur Russell - First Thought, Best Thought
Arthur Russell – First Thought, Best Thought
There’s really nothing mindblowing about this one, but the color combination and simple artwork just really seem to fit the feel of the release. Easily the most “unfinished” batch of work culled from Russell’s archive, the baby blue background and sketchy, line-art feel of the slipcase cover just feel right. They’re also sort of a lighter facade to the more melancholy photos that comprise the artwork within the jewelcase. A nice juxtaposition that is perfectly in line with the music (disc 1 starts out with lighter, almost improv pieces before turning into more droning, expansive work).

(for more album artwork appreciation from 2006, check out Elasticheart’s list)

Rune Grammofon 50th ReleaseEvery year, in the back of my head, in a place that really doesn’t matter to anyone other than myself and possibly a couple of my more seriously hardcore music friends, I pick out my favorite record labels each year. I comprise this list in a rather rough way, based on how many releases I enjoy by that label out of their total slate for the year, the packaging on those releases, and if the label has been putting out interesting stuff on a consistent basis (this last qualifier makes it hard for a new label to shoot to the top of said list during their first or even second year).

Having said all of the above, I’m going to have to pick out Rune Grammofon as my favorite label of 2006. While none of their releases knocked me for a loop as much as some of their past efforts, I enjoyed every single thing that they put out this year (okay, maybe not so much the Moha!), and most of their releases were simply outstanding. Supersilent’s 7 is worth watching at least once simply to see the mindblowing senergy of great live, improvisational musicians, the re-issue of the self-titled album from Phonophani is killer, Come Up For Air by The White Birch will be among my favorites for the year, and both Humcrush (Hornswoggle) and Susanna and The Magic Orchestra (Melody Mountain) put out excellent second albums. Throw in continued great packaging design from Kim Hiorthoy and the result is an adventurous label putting out some of the more exciting music being released over the course of the past couple years (Deathprod still has sections of just about every single gloomy day all carved out to himself).

In a close second place this year is long-time favorite Kranky Records, who not only largely moved to a different packaging look, but had one of their strongest batch of releases in several years. The latest Charalambides (A Vintage Burden) is a stunner, the debut from Benoit Pioulard (Precis) is outstanding, and Keith Fullerton Whitman released some of his best work (in my opinion) on the Lisbon EP. Oh, and in case that wasn’t enough, the label continued their track record of mind-melting ambient releases with great stuff from Chihei Hatakeyama (Minima Moralia) and Tim Hecker (Harmony In Ultraviolet). Hopefully they’ll just keep on kicking my butt in 2007…

Lastly, I figure I should mention Type Records. They’re still kinda the new kids on the block, but they’ve been coming on strong the past two years with some excellent releases and a constant great look with their packaging (and their website). As a smaller label, it seems like they’re doing just about everything right and have some nice little branches that extend out from their regular release schedule (from the excellent downloadable podcasts to the limited 7″ releases). They’re definitely someone to keep an eye on.

Aaron (formerly one-fifth of Marianas, a great designer, and a weekly tennis chap of mine) is now officially the first member of our group to actually put some music out into a public forum in a new band. Humland made their live debut the other evening with a soaring batch of songs (the tracks on their aforementioned myspace page don’t really do them service) that work the intricate post rock tip nicely. They even played a cover/reworking of the Marianas track “Good God Damn” (off our Summering EP) that was quite surreal to hear as a non-participating audience member.

And speaking of A.M. (after Marianas) projects, Ryan and I are indeed still working on our little project. It is coming along slowly but surely, with several evenings per month looking like this in my living room…

Ryan recording...

Steve Reich - Phases (A Retrospective)Many, many years ago, I found a CD in a markdown bin at a music store in the town that I was going to college in. It was a CD by the Orb and it became one of my real jumping off points to electronic music and one of my favorite CDs of that time. On this CD, the group sampled a bit of Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” (in “Little Fluffy Clouds”), although I wouldn’t know that for some time afterwards.

Several years later, after I was out of college, I was told about a piece of music called “Different Trains,” which was a collaboration between Kronos Quartet (who I really liked at the time, and were the foundation for said conversation) and Steve Reich. I purchased this CD and it blew my mind. It was really unlike anything I had heard at the time (even from Kronos Quartet, whose “Howl U.S.A.” has similar musical touchpoints, yet I hadn’t heard at that point in time), and it subsequently moved me enough to seek out more work by Steve Reich.

The first purchase that I made was Music For 18 Musicians and it quickly became one of my favorite pieces of music in my entire collection (and still is). It’s one of those amazing, timeless pieces of music that seems to encompass everything I love about music. If you listen to it in certain situations, it can sound driving and almost relentless, yet put into another listening context can sound weightless and ethereal. It’s truly one of those rare pieces of music that I can listen to at any point during any given day, whether I’m happy or sad and know that I’ll enjoy it.

Over the years, I’ve picked up several more CDs by Steve Reich and enjoyed almost everything that I’ve heard by him. In sort of a roundabout way, I learned that he was having his 70th birthday this month (it was on October 3rd), and in doing so it re-ignited my fascination with his music. Even though I already had a good portion of the music contained on it, I went ahead and purchased the recently-released 5CD Phases: A Retrospective compilation on Nonesuch Records. Not only is the set a better introduction to his music, but it’s also much cheaper than his super expensive 10CD set on the same label. After listening to the set again straight through several times, I can honestly say that I feel it’s essential. It not only includes the aforementioned “Music For 18 Musicians,” but also his stunning “Drumming” (the shorter version), “Different Trains,” his earliest tape loop piece (“Come Out”), his newest composition (“You Are (Variations”) and even “Electric Counterpoint,” which was the song I mentioned waaaay back at the beginning, which was sampled by The Orb. There’s also a ton of other music, and each disc runs well over seventy minutes, making for a huge batch of listening.

But anyway, enough shilling. In honor of his birthday, NPR re-ran an interview that Reich did with Terry Gross a couple years back, and while it’s several years old, it’s still worth listening to. The interview was done in 1999 when Reich was 63, but it’s still amazing to hear how vibrant and excited about creating art he still is at his age. If you’re someone who likes to listen to someone who is well-spoken talk about their art and the thought processes that go into it, I highly recommend the interview. It’s worth noting that listening to said interview, I learned that his last name is actually pronounced “Reish.” I’d been pronouncing it incorrectly for years and years.

I can honestly say that Steve Reich is one of those composers/musicians who have changed my life for the better, even if it’s just a little bit. For that, I want to wish him a happy birthday and many more productive years doing what he loves.

Oh, and I’m also sorry about the name. I promise to pronounce it correctly from now on.

As you may or may not know, I’ve been working on a new musical project for a good portion of this year. Ryan and I have been slowly plugging along and making progress on a post Marianas project that has a couple things in common with our old group, but moves in lots of new directions as well.

One of these directions is that our new group is going to have vocals. Every song. We’re both big fans of groups like Talking Heads and Depeche Mode and even more modern artists like Notwist and DNTEL, and it seemed like the next logical step. Plus, it seemed like a good way to challenge ourselves even more.
The problem is that I’ve never really done much in terms of lyrics before. Sure, I’ve written down slews of stuff for songs that never turned into anything, but I’ve never penned anything that I’d feel either comfortable or interested in singing aloud and especially recording. I’ve done a ton of writing in my life, including lots of reviews (obviously), loads of fiction (including several 20+ page unpublished pieces), and lots of essays and non-fiction. Writing lyrics is an entirely different beast, though.

Because I’m still sort of learning at it, I find myself falling into familiar traps like trying to rhyme each end of line with the next. I catch myself coming up with over-used words and I’ve done a large amount of simply slashing and burning different things that I’ve written when upon second reading they sound like the work of a complete lightweight idiot.

All of the above said, I have come up with some lines that I’m really proud of (I’m trying to take the mindset that I have to be comfortable enough with anything I come up with to see it in print at some point) and I go through little periods where it seems like I can spit out one line after another. I just want to come up with words that are slightly original and I won’t feel embarrassed about in the morning. Is that too much to ask?

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