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April 25, 2012

Coachella 2012

I wore my Coachella 2011 wristband to Coachella 2012 and I have the horrible tan line to show for it. Last year’s festival such a life-changing transcendental experience that I thought seriously about cutting the wristband off before I went to this year’s second weekend because there was no way that the two experiences could be compared. And they really can’t be.

The musical talent present at the festival was fantastic which should come as no surprise to anyone who saw the line-up. There was Friday’s M83 performance that boasted chest thumping electronic dance-hall anthems that shot the crowd’s collective consciousness into the space looking shimmering light-show backdrop. There was the Black Lips performance Saturday that had the young Georgian punk-rockers smashing guitars, shot gunning beers with the sound guy, and inciting the tattooed, sweaty crowd upfront to open up a gaping, thrashing maw of a mosh pit and scream themselves hoarse. Even in the 108 degree heat on Sunday, Afrobeat legends, Seun Kuti and the Egypt 80 got the entire sunburnt crowd jiving with the funky beats and Kuti’s incredibly charismatic and passionate performance. And Kaskade probably made cracked out bros grind on mostly-naked rave girls to really loud, shitty music, but I wouldn’t know for sure. I missed that one for some reason.

With the ever increasing popularity of EDC type festivals, it made sense that literally every other person who I asked the question of, “what was your favorite show so far?” answered with Swedish House Mafia, Feed Me, Madeon, or Borgore etc etc followed by the inevitable “Yeah I’ve pretty much just been hanging out at the Sahara stage all weekend.” It was probably the one glaring problem with Coachella. The line-up, especially on the Sahara stage which was almost entirely EDM acts, created a huge separation between the music junkies who came to see the music they are obsessed with and those who just came to dress up, take amphetamines, and dance to some dubstep. I’m not saying that electronic music is bad in any way. Acts like the jazz tinged disco of Breakbot and the incredible bass assault by Thundercat were absolutely mind-blowing; and I’m still kicking myself for not seeing Flying Lotus and Death Grips. But that David Guetta party scene was the reason that Gotye’s tent cleared out halfway through his mind-blowing set after that type of people had heard “Somebody I Used to Know.”

It established an us against them kind of mentality that reared its ugly head at The Shins concert when singer James Mercer, only partially kidding, suggested that, “maybe we should all go to war with the people at a certain other stage,” which was a pretty terrible thing to say to a bunch of people tripped out on drugs. But if I’m being perfectly honest, after being called a homo by a group of 8 or so tribal tattooed, spiked hair Jersey Shore d-bags it didn’t strike me as terribly as it should have. Which is not what Coachella should be about at all.

Before you read the next part you should probably watch this:

I realize that if this is your first time listening to this is, it can be abrasive, especially with Mangum's voice but the amount of emotion and passion dripping from every word and just the pure expression is something I hope you can pick up.

Jeff Mangum’s performance was the quintessential type of experience that Coachella should be trying to provide. For those who don’t know Jeff Mangum was the lead singer of Neutral Milk Hotel, whose album “In An Aeroplane Over The Sea” is regarded by many people as a masterpiece of indie-rock. But after it’s release and the explosion of hype that followed, Mangum disappeared out of the public eye for over a decade. So after a voice repeated the message “the artist requests that no photos or videos be taken during the performance” twice and Mangum sat down next a rack of guitars by himself on stage, it was quickly apparent that this was going to be something different. He opened with “Two Headed Boy pt. 2” and the “King of Carrot Flowers” songs, and people unaccustomed to his high-pitched, distinct singing style and the repeated refrain in part 2 of “King of Carrot Flowers” of “I love you Jesus Christ / Jesus Christ I love you / Yes I do,” left from far fringes of the crowd. But the people who were screaming the words as loud as they possibly could quickly found themselves with their arms wrapped around complete strangers in long rows as they slowly swayed back and forth to the music.

To get an idea of what it was like in this crowd there's this:

In between songs there weren’t any requests for songs just silence and anticipation broken by an occasional yell of “Thank you Jeff!” or “Your music changed my life! Thank you!” It was such a pure and honest performance but also a very complicated performance. Mangum’s sharp features, terse stage banter and intense eye contact showed just how uncomfortable he was playing at a festival headlined by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Jeff Mangum never wanted to be a rock star. You can easily tell from the earlier demos and live recordings that did when he toured in the 90's because he spends the shows joking and laughing with the audience about how his life is sometimes falling apart and making music with his friends is one of the few things that holds him together. But after someone puts out an album that's considered by so many people to be this incredible masterpiece, you can't really play hole in the wall venues anymore and just make music that you like to play. It takes a certain kind of mind to put out such unfiltered emotion and that kind of person really just isn't built or even after the magnitude of reaction that he received. It was easy to see how much it pained him to be there, but he was there anyway to play for the hundreds of people who found something so identifiable in his music. That's what made the performance so special. After an unbelievably intimate cover of Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in The End” and accompaniment by a group of horn and percussion players for the show’s finale of “The Fool,” people were hysterically weeping and holding each other, completely lost in that feeling of ebullient joy.

These are the moments that Coachella should be based around, the indescribable ecstasy that comes from connecting with a group of strangers around a band that they absolutely love. Obviously, not everyone is going to connect with Jeff Mangum and that's fine but the caliber of artists should lend themselves towards finding that emotion. It was that feeling of togetherness that made last year’s Coachella such an unforgettable experience and it’s that feeling that is slowly being pushed aside in order to boost ticket sales, which is a shame. It’s a shame because Coachella has always been about bringing the best bands of every genre together to celebrate the art form as a whole, but the divisive nature of this year’s line-up took that away somewhat. It was still an unforgettable experience but I can’t help feeling like some people just completely missed the point this year.

April 15, 2012

Good Music?

This is King Charles. This is really good music. And I think that's all that really needs to be said about it. Listen to it.

As I get further and further into this music criticism thing, I realize how contrived a lot of it is. Take for instance Robert Christgau the so-called "Dean of Rock Critics." Here's a guy who was the pioneer of music criticism, invented capsule reviews etc etc and laid the foundation for people like me to try and take a crack at what I really love to do. But what I have to ask is, is that type of criticism the best? Or at the very least could there be other avenues to explore?

For instance, take King Charles up above there. I could talk until I was blue in the face about his influences, what genre of music it is, how his musical background affects the sound, how the obvious kitsch could be an ironic take on the scene but I think that's missing the point. Sure it's easy to categorize music and continue dividing it smaller and smaller until nothing is original anymore but mere repetitions on the same idea or imitations of the originator. But the point is that the music is good. That at this point in musical history it takes some cajones for a musician to come along with an image that ridiculous, and a persona that extravagant and be completely serious in making music that's silly and also good. It feels like every new band that is up and coming is a rip off of the one that came before. Rock music gets boiled down to garage rock, slightly different arrangements and in nearly every one the singer's voice is hidden behind fuzzed out distortion. That's what's cool, that's in right now. No real emotion, just a whole lot of clever wordplay and the cliche rockstar persona, it's boring. So on the other end of the spectrum you get this:

From all outward appearances this kind of thing has been done to death. Oh here's one guy with an acoustic guitar singing over it. But there's something intangible about Ben Howard. Pitchfork will never like it because it's not necessarily new or innovative but it's beautiful and it's heartfelt. And that's kinda where the conversation should end.

I mean there are people who treat music like a science, or math. Take this kind of rhythm, add filters, layer this instrument here, vocals over the top and there you go, music. And that works for some people. The music can be interesting and they can digest it and put it together like a puzzle and that's pleasurable to them. But that's completely different than the way I think it ought to be. I guess it comes from my background with it or whatever, but I honestly think it's not good unless it makes you feel something. Unless you see the band and you can completely lose yourself in waves of ecstasy and emotion (not just the drugs). Or unless the music can get you through rough times, or be your anthem of triumph or work as a soundtrack for any part of your life, it's just not good.

I really think there is this schism in music and I think it comes from the divide between Jazz and Blues. I think that's the problem in its quintessence. On one hand you have the complicated rhythms and time signatures, notes that clash and come together in sometimes pleasing sometimes cringe inducing ways and some people love that. I honestly can appreciate it for what it is, dissect it, look for influence and all that but on the other hand you have music like this:

And 99 times out of 100 I'm going to listen to music like that instead. Because it uses simple chords, simple melodies to get across something that's something so much larger than a guy playing a piano. It's music like this that gets people to come together. It makes them forget all the day to day (pardon the french) shit that they have to put up with. All the well-intentioned how are you's and nice weather we're having's and just that surface level garbage. It's not a rat race when you listen to music that means something, that stands for something. You're able to appreciate the fact that you're alive, that the world is beautiful and the characters you share it with are more than just faces you recognize.

I guess that's what has always drawn me to the punk scene. You can't really fake that. Some people try and it doesn't float, ever. It's just heart on sleeve admissions and throat shredding yelling aimed at the corrupt bourgeoisie that are making the world such a hellhole. And more than that its a type of music designed to make people see that they are all on the same side. Regardless of creed, religion, ethnicity or sex, we are all after the same things in life and I don't think jazz, or music based like that can communicate that sentiment.

I just hope that as I get deeper and deeper into this industry, I don't ever lose sight of the feeling. I don't become numb and jaded. I hope that I will always be able to relish unbridled passion and expression because I think that's what we are going to need more of in the years to come.