(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Commentary - On the banality of evil: Google vs. indie artists

Like most of us, I'm in thrall to Google. It's hard to track all the strands of how I'm tethered to them: my email server, my blog platform, cloud storage..the list goes on and on. They make it so easy because all of this stuff is more or less free. Actually, it's paid for by choosing to accept that they'll own all my metadata and connect the dots to know everything about me, from what my likely politics and income are to what kind of porn I'm interested in. It's kind of disturbing if you think about it for too long, but we're a captive audience with limited alternatives.

Google has so many balls in play, it's hard to keep track of them -- they are legion, after all -- but a particularly ugly one just caught my attention. I was listening to ZoĆ« Keating on the February 5th episode of Studio 360, where she talked about her negotiations with Google over changes to their music services agreement. This has been percolating for months, but Keating's recent blog post has generated another round of attention. In a nutshell, Google is consolidating their contracts with artists to optimize their free YouTube and premium Google Play/Music Key services. Simplification is not a bad thing, but the devil is in the details...and these details stink.

What it comes down to is that Google is a jealous god. They are demanding that artists provide their entire catalog of work to Google and that no third party outlet should have earlier access to that material. In exchange, they're offering relatively crappy royalty rates and the privilege of not kicking them off Google's content services. This is especially problematic for independent artists like Keating or Jill Sobule, who have organically developed their fan base and make their music available via their own websites or third parties like Bandcamp. This would effectively mean that they couldn't release directly to their fans before making it available to Big G.

It's easy enough to see the business motivation here. It's harder to justify paying for a premium music service if you can get new music somewhere else first. It also makes sense to have the same rules for all of their content delivery services. It's all very convenient. Still, it's hard to see why Google absolutely has to have exclusivity. It seems like it would be sufficient for them to assert that music available on YouTube should also be available on Music Key. Allowing artists to control their own material isn't all that different from letting me decide whether to write an article for a blog post or for a media site. Google could continue monetizing the content that they have access to and the synergy of services they offer will make participating that much more attractive. If Google could settle for that, they wouldn't come across as bullies, crushing indie artists for legal expedience.

On the other hand, if they hold their ground and either screw or blackball indie artists, it's hard to see them as anything but evil. A bland, pedestrian evil, but still just as distasteful.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Recording review - Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones (2015)

A long time coming, but real and in-the-moment 


It's not that hard to see why Kate Pierson has finally made her first solo album. While her voice has always been a central part of the B-52s, their party atmosphere doesn't easily accommodate more serious feelings or deeper expression. The real surprise is that, despite numerous guest appearances with artists like Iggy Pop or REM, it's taken her nearly 40 years to get to this point. Fortunately, Guitars and Microphones is a confident step forward, facing hard situations, regret, and loss with strength, depth, and resilience. But fans shouldn't expect this to be a downer; these songs are anchored in a contemporary aesthetic that buoys the mood.

Pop icon Sia Furler bears some credit for this; she helped inspire Pierson to make the album, she contributed several songs, and she acted as the executive producer. Pierson’s new wave foundation has been infused with a lot more electro-pop beats and production and that seems to reflect Sia's influence. It’s not too much of a stretch, though, because Pierson's distinctive voice neatly slides into this polished setting, with some of these tracks, like “Bottoms Up” or “Time Wave Zero”,  rivaling Katy Perry and other diva youngsters for bouncy, danceable fun. More importantly, her trademark spunk and personal experience give the material weight and demonstrate that she hasn't surrendered her character or sold out for a desperate shot at relevance.

Guitars and Microphones leads with that sass on “Throw Down the Roses”, where Pierson pumps up the infectious groove with poised attitude, refusing to be a mere follower. Girl Power is nothing new, but she sells it with the perfect amount of poisonous sneer and tight lyrical turns, "I don't ever do rocker boys like you/ I'm an artist, too/ I'm a show stopper." A couple of songs later, though, the autobiographical feel of the title track trades some of that pride for a more ambivalent mood. Pierson free associates memories of sweet youth and loss, with the raw edges of her voice conveying her mixed emotions over a synth-driven new wave melody that recalls Dale Bozzio and Missing Persons. The music is smooth, but those occasional crumbling notes in her voice imbue the piece with an essential realness.

That depth continues on “Wolves”, one of the most impressive songs on the album that moves even further away from her B-52s past. The lush production matches the poetic lyrics about love and freedom. There’s a touch of Disney musical magic in the epic beauty of the tune, with Pierson's aching sincerity adding the right poignant note on lines like “We all love to play/ We play at love then run away.” This and the somber “Pulls You Under” represent a much more nuanced character than we've heard in the past.

Where those songs are fairly direct, Guitars and Microphones also features a number of more oblique tunes. “Bring Your Arms”, for example, is full of cool imagery (“And we are running with a light bulb”) that never gelled until she provided the back story in an interview. But even without the context, the dreamy intensity and urgency make their own kind of compelling sense. It’s worth remembering that plenty of B-52s songs were built on flimsy lyrical conceits that just sounded right, like “Rock Lobster”.

The only sour note on the album has been with the first single, “Mister Sister”, which stirred up a controversy with some members of the trans community. Pierson has made it clear that her intention was to continue the same kind of supportive attitude that her band has often expressed for alternative lifestyles and anyone who feels like an outsider. Unfortunately, not everyone has received it in that spirit. While I am certainly not qualified to tell anyone how they should feel about the tune, I can empathize with Pierson’s surprise at the backlash. The song itself serves as the cleanest bridge between her quirky B-52s roots and her desire to show more emotional depth on this solo project. With or without it, she's definitely achieved that goal on Guitars and Microphones.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

What's cool - Pussy Riot, "I Can't Breathe"

Power games

Vladimir Putin probably isn't the only one wishing that protest artists Pussy Power would just shut up and go away. The group has just released a new video that will likely have the right wing American rant-o-sphere joining him in decrying the group. What brings together these ideological opposites? Their spiritual brotherhood in hating dissent and feigning outrage. Not content with speaking out against Putin's dictatorship, Pussy Riot uses their latest video, "I Can't Breathe", to draw a direct connection between the leader's state sponsored terrorism against his political opposition and the recent American cases of police overreaction and lethal violence against people of color.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, who spent 21 month in prison for Pussy Riot's church protest in 2012, partnered with Russian bands Jack Wood and Scofferlane to create the song and video. As the two women are buried in shallow graves while wearing Russian riot police uniforms, the lyrics refer to Eric Garner, who was choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo last year. After the opening lines that describe Garner as a martyr, they go on to say "If it's unfair my friend/ Make up your mind./ It's getting dark in New York City." At the end of the song, famed punk icon Richard Hell reads the transcript of Garner's last words on the police video of the incident, inflecting them with frustration and, finally, panic.

Unlike most of Pussy Riot's guerrilla protests, "I Can't Breathe" is actually a very polished and moving piece. While their raw anger and direct confrontations of the past have made their point, this video will probably reach a larger audience and make a deeper impression. The music is stark and powerful and Sasha Klokova's vocals are haunting. The simplicity reminds me of Sinead O'Connor's "Black Boys on Mopeds", which dealt with a similar topic. The video imagery is not all that subtle, nor is their accompanying press statement, but none of that detracts from the song. They draw a clear link between Russia's actions in the Ukraine, Putin's riot police assaulting protesters and the police violence and protests here.

Plenty of people here will say it's an unfair comparison that's disrespectful of police officers just trying to do their job, But just as anyone ambivalent about Russian imperialism would be leery speaking up too loudly, it shouldn't be surprising that people of color, especially young men, have trouble thinking of the police as public servants. It's too much to expect this song to effect a real change on its own, but it can certainly help keep up the pressure.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Recording review - Treasure Fleet, The Sun Machine (2015)

Better the first time I heard it


Treasure Fleet's The Sun Machine sees them trying on their grandparent's paisley and, like many retro acts, earnestly pretending that it’s a natural fit. That said, there’s nothing wrong with their idealized immersion in the past. Heck, on any given weekend, the Society for Creative Anachronism exults in chivalry and sword fights without worrying themselves about the Plague, so this is just some more harmless fun. Like the knights of the SCA and their armor, Isaac Thotz and his band have studied the old masters of forging psychedelic grooves. The Sun Machine has plenty of moments that are a treat to settle into, but the fundamental problem is that many of those parts are overwhelmingly derivative or, to be charitable, they are unsubtle homages. Assembling chain mail requires skill and the band demonstrates their own musical talent, but it’s more artisinal than artful. They could have redeemed this with a bit of irony or acknowledgment of their sources. Better yet, they could have added more of their own creative character. Instead, the record devolves into a pastiche of classic rock and psychedelia.

The core idea is quite interesting. The Sun Machine has a grander scope than just an album, as it serves as the score to a short film also written by Thotz. Fittingly, this evokes Pink Floyd’s soundtrack work like More, rather than a concept album. But without context of the movie, it’s hard to draw any kind of coherent story from these songs. The lyrics ramble from stoned bicycling to seeking mental balance in a free form association. Still, that's hardly a detriment for this kind of music where clarity is rarely expected.

The first track, “The View  From Mt Olympus”, blends bits of “Roundabout” by Yes with The Who’s Tommy (especially “Sparks”) along with some Moody Blues. It’s packed with a host of retro touchstones, with the trippy vibe accentuated by mutated guitar distortion, draped in washes of echo and wah, all compressed into a little more than three minutes. What’s not to love? Treasure Fleet still had me, even as they seemed to be trying to win a bar bet on how many allusions they could cram in.

Unfortunately, they lost me two songs later with “Max Consumption”. The cool motorik beat and obsessive drive remind me of Brian Eno’s “Third Uncle”. It's a phenomenally catchy song, but as much as I enjoy the music, the lack of original lyrical content kills it. Aside from the opening verses, the bulk of the song is a warped medley of unrelated tunes, from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and Queens of the Stone Age’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer" to Harry Nilsson’s “Lime in the Coconut”, all shoehorned into the same relatively tuneless chant. The Kinks, Simon and Garfunkel, the Dead Boys, and a line from “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground join the party as well. It's surprising that they left out “Mother’s Little Helper” and “White Rabbit” to round out the loose theme of food and drugs. There's a long history of appropriating pieces of other songs, from jazz musicians quoting pop melodies during their solos to hip hop sampling. A reference can become a building block to extend the piece, a recognition of a similar theme, or a way to comment on the material. It can even be a little in-joke for those paying attention. In this case, though, the borrowed lyrics don’t mesh or build on the original words and it feels like Treasure Fleet is either lazy or have little regard for their audience. They even lifted the title from The Kinks' "Maximum Consumption". It's frustrating because, without the distraction of the purloined lines, they could have expanded their own words into a great piece. Instead, this cheap imitation sabotages a good song and makes it impossible to listen to the rest of the album’s musical allusions without a jaded ear.

That hurts because there’s plenty of good material on The Sun Machine and Treasure Fleet even came up with some of it on their own. Honestly, if I weren't already so familiar with their sources, I could have easily added another star to my score. Other listeners might not be so picky. But I’d still recommend bands like The Men, The Electric Mess, or even Acid Baby Jesus, if you want to hear a good blend of retro and neo psych jams.