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Desultory Music Review

At H2K2, there was a guy who addressed peer-to-peer music sharing. (Later, he made a pass at me, and I apologized and said I was taken and gave him my card. Where did he go? silly.) One of the things he kept saying is that we can’t be ashamed of sharing music. We’re not stealing; from whom are we taking value? Not the people who give us the music; they still have their copy. The musicians are already being robbed blind by labels, and we need to find other ways to pay them. (Some people say live concerts, with which I heartily agree.)

[I’ve had occasion to think about similar issues from a writing standpoint at work lately, though I’m not sure how to fit this ultra-bleeding-edge kind of critique into the dead-tree-oriented work I do under the guidance of a stodgy old-school New York leftist…

The one thing I do know is that I don’t think anyone should make a living off writing memoirs and personal essays. Not anyone. Possibly people shouldn’t get paid for fiction or poetry, either. Do it in your off hours, when you’re not plumbing or teaching or farming or signing off on contracts which enrich you by exploiting the work of others (at least until the system collapses and takes the latter kind of work down too). It’s great that right now some people want to pay for this stuff, and I do exploit it, but I’m coming to think of getting paid for most writing as an unsustinable by-product of the current corporate system. This kind of writing (this kind. right here. and I extend the categorization to include anything written by Philip Lopate, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Kingsolver, Piers Anthony, Malcolm Gladwell, Neil Postman, anyone who writes product feature or home-decoration pieces for magazines, and, um, other writers who I dislike for either personal, political, or aesthetic reasons) doesn’t do anything useful for the world as a whole.

By contrast, I think real honest-to-god journalism is valuable, and requires a good deal of time-consuming work to do well; I was struggling to think of a sustainable system for paying journalists that didn’t compromise their ethics by making them dependent on some large corporation… so I thought about state sponsorship, which is obviously fatally flawed… Anyway, more thoughts on this sometime.]

Annnyway, so this guy suggested possible ways to help entrench music sharing into culture until we’re able to squeeze control of art out of the hands of the giant profitmongering media conglomerates. The proposal that I remember particularly is having parties where everyone brings drives and disks full of music, rips them, shares them, heads home, and comes with a new set for the next party. I’d actually recently been to something like (only more one-sided) at Jessamyn’s Fourth of July party, during which CDs were ripped continuously, adding to her already huge selection of MP3s. Seems like a good model, and I do always like practical applications to visionary whining.

Robert Durff sent me a CD for my birthday which I found fit well into what I’ve been looking for from music recently. He was surprised when I told him so, because the last thing I told him I was into was “Latin.” Which is still true, really. The bulk of the music I listen to has Latin roots, mostly because I find immersing myself in it is less irritating than immersing myself in the remaining trickle of the mainstream American rock tradition, which is so polluted with influences and demography as to be unswimmable at this point.

So. Let’s all get together and swap. Here’s what I’ve ingested over the past year; if you want some lemme know; if you know similar things I might like, tell me. Here’s reviews, which I’ve arranged according to my foraging patterns in response to record industry hysteria. Notice not one of these musical interactions involves theft, though one does involve questionable borrowing.

These are CDs I’ve actually bought in the past year:

  • Groove Armada, Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub)

    If you listen to KCRW, you’ve heard them, because they’re good for Los Angeles nights.
  • Los De Abajo, Cybertropic Chilango Power

    Hear them for yourself at
  • Zuco 103

    Itchy itchy dance grooves from Brazil.
  • Dan Bern, Smartie Mine.

    Sounds like the living heir to Bob Dylan sometimes, Elvis Costello others. Unholy good driving music; “Ballerina,” in particular, makes me want to take a road trip just to do it justice. He gets filthy sometimes (there’s a whole song about his giant balls, and Tiger Woods, and Muhammad Ali), and you’d think he was a conpiracy theorist by hobby, but isn’t that how a post-Nirvana Dylanist ought to be?
  • Erin McKeown, Monday Morning Cold (and James gave me Distillation)

    She’s little and cute and doesn’t sing that way, god bless her. Sort of music-hall, sort of gutbucket, sort of ragtime and hot jazz.

Here’s artists I’ve copied in bulk in the past year:

  • Immortal Bhangra 5

    Borrowed it from an editor who pissed me off. Someday, I’ll give it back, but not now, ha ha. Ripped all the songs, which I don’t listen to all that often. Straight bhangra doesn’t appeal to me as much as dance mix bhangra, except of course for Gurdas Mann; I find the very high-pitched soloists’ vocals distracting.
  • Caetano Veloso

    Borrowing CDs from the library + burning them is goooood cleeeean fuuuuun! Unfortunately, my burn turned out badly. Veloso’s sambas and bossas are cool and smooth, less jumpy and more adult than most of the “world music” I get into these days.
  • Fussible

    Featured on Audiogalaxy shortly before it closed, this Mexican electronica (trance? I never know how to categorize) group is really one of my favorites, with nicely subdermal, walking-pace bass.
  • Orishas, A Lo Cubano

    A clean, innovative mix of Cuban, rap and other styles which we listened to death at work. One or two of the vocalists have voices I find super-sexy.

Here’s copied music I’ve been passed in the past few weeks:

  • Barcelona

    Neil handed me one of their albums. Their songs are almost entirely about geeking out — video games, sysadmin work, Commodore 64s — and they rely on old-sounding computer sounds as well as some sort of garage band setup. My favorite: “Social Engineering” (will get you what you want). A little too close to pop alternative for me on the guitar front (boring, repetitive chords), but the lyrics make it worthwhile.

    Neil tacked on a song by Figurine (Our Game (Is Over)) at the end, which is more entirely bloops and bleeps; it’s sparer than Barcelona, and sounds like early eighties experimentation with synths, maybe Depeche Mode? Sprinkled with delicious video game noises, which I think is a hallmark of our generation, I could be wrong. Neil’s notes imply that it was remixed with some sort of AI.
  • ”Still Waters: Lounge, Trip Hop, and Acid Jazz from Robert (Durff)’s Hi-Fi”

    Zero Seven, Rinocerose, Thievery Corporation, and other good things, burned for my birthday. Pizzicato Five and Lovage are my favorites.
  • Here’s CDs I’ve received in the past week and have only barely listened to:

    • Rachelle Garniez and the Fortunate Few, Crazy Blood

      Rachelle gave me her CD Sunday as I was interviewing her for an article I’m working on. She’s an accordion player, grew up in NYC — she’s half Belgian, and has this funky throaty accent. She’s had this kind-of-ethereal-like-Katherine-Whalen-but-a-little-more-twisted,-like,-uh…-Kate-Bush?-I-don’t-know thing going on. She and this other accordion player have a semi-regular gig with a guitar player at Lily’s in Red Hook, which has a nice back patio but is a bitch to get to by subway. Some Leon Redbone-sounding blues stuff, tango, jazz. Go! Lily’s has tiki torches!
    • dj Cheb i Sabbah, Krishna Lila

      Heard him spin at a club in San Francisco, and it was truly fantastic stuff, African, Arabic and Indian dance music. Here he’s taking devotionals and adding a beat underpinning that is subtler and more suited to the classical style than a lot of the hip-hop trash which gets slapped onto bhangra.

    Here’s a CD I ordered and haven’t received yet:

    • Negativland, Dyspepsi

      Yes, it’s many years old now, I don’t care. I couldn’t get the anti-Pepsi jingle Mark Hosler played at H2K2 out of my head, and I felt guilty I was hanging around their table all day talking about Jon Land and never got around to buying anything. so it’s coming to me, fully paid, in the mail. You have to support artists whose legal fees tend to skyrocket unexpectedly.

    Here’s stuff off of cassette tapes I’ve been turning into MP3s, but it probably won’t piss off the RIAA:

  • PYSO Coast to Coast concert, I think 1991

    It’s the stuff our youth orchestra played in Carnegie Hall, only this tape was recorded in Ambassador Auditorium back home in Pasadena, and includes solos, one by a flutist named Gregory Jefferson who I always thought was just way too good for junior high. Features Fiddler’s Stew by Richard Meyer. Anyone want a copy? I’ll swap for some of Meyer’s other works 🙂
  • The song I wrote at the Young Writers’ Workshop in 1994

    Featuring me on accordion and vocals, Lindsay Smith also on vocals, Greg Howard on Chapman stick, and I think a counselor named Charles on chicken shake. I think I called it Amphibian Astronaut Guys. OK, so that link is dead right now… I promise I’ll upload it sometime, like when I figure out how to make the server stop sucking.
  • Soon I plan to make MP3s out of the old hard, pre-vinyl records in my basement (Robert says they’re 78s? and apparently I am not supposed to clean them with alcohol; they’re shellac, and will dissolve.) Some of them have hand-made labels, and appear to be made by ultra-local New York big bands. The music is not all that spectacular, but I’m looking forward to distributing stuff that could well otherwise be lost.
  • Here’s artists whose tapes I have had forever but haven’t listened to until recently:

    • Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Vasos Vacios

      Surprisingly like the Migty Mighty Bosstones, with some salsa thrown in for good measure. I think they had a song on the Strictly Ballroom soundtrack.
    • Los Lobos, Kiko and The Neighborhood

      They played Irving Plaza Tuesday, and I didn’t get tix on time, moron that I am. The Village Voice’s review got them right: they’re Chicano, but they’re definitely blues, too. Also makes for killer driving music.

    Here’s artists I know who deserve mad props:


      I’d heard Kermit talk about his legendary Poot Rock for years and thought it sounded like a good idea, but only heard some stray snippets many years ago at a party at Kenji Baugham’s house. Lots of MIDI underpinnings; samples of all sorts of random shit including me yelling “NOOOO DEVOOOO! NOOOOO!” to his answering machine. Has an energy and worldview more frenetic than Danny Elfman film scores; this is not music to put in the background if you need to multitask and think, because it will periodically throw your attention some right hook and proceed to play tetherball with it. Streaming! (use iTunes if you have a Mac). Even Neil was impressed, and he’s picky.


    1. Roger wrote:

      If you think Bernstein is a conspiracy theorist, you are probably being way too literal-minded. His satirical voice doesn’t seem to come across as well on the albums — I’ve heard this confusion from a bunch of folks who hadn’t seen him live — but this is one musician who you shouldn’t conflate entirely with the narrators of his songs.

      This confusion might all be explained by his fervent desire to piss off his audience (which I’ve seen in concert any number of times). The first time I saw Dan was when he opened for Ani DiFranco a few years ago, and he sang “Tiger Woods” (the song that begins “I’ve got BIG BALLS…”) to start out, before this crowd of eager dykey young women. I think he was doing it just to alienate them.

      “Filthy,” of course, is right on target. But when did this become a bad thing?

      Friday, July 26, 2002 at 11:53 am | Permalink
    2. evan wrote:

      Hey you might want to check out AmParanoia. It’s fun up beat political latin fusion. And their website has dancing zapatista dolls. I thought there were spanish but from reading their website it’s four people from cuba, and one from bulgaria, barcelona, and switzerland. It’s good music, worth listening to even if you don’t care about the politics.

      Sunday, August 4, 2002 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

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