Culturespill » 2008 » April

Here We Go Again: Meet Another Great Band from Brooklyn

30th April

Elika

If you wondered why Pitchfork’s Ryan Schreiber moved to Brooklyn last year–because, you know, all of us wait with bated breath to learn about the Exalted Imam of indie-rock’s next move–a band called “Elika” is one good reason why. Brooklyn’s ongoing underground rock renaissance, responsible for such wicked miracles as TV on the Radio and The Honorary Title, continues to deliver some of the greatest music you’ve never heard. For Elika, that anonymity ends with the release of their lush and ambient debut, Trying Got Us Nowhere (yeah, join the club, dude.)

With a sound that Ulrich Schnauss describes as “an incredibly exciting, radical fusion of shoegaze and electronica,” the band covers enough musical terrain to map the globe, naming influences anywhere from Brian Wilson to Pat Benatar, Nico to Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch. We might add Depeche Mode, Kate Bush and Love and Rockets while we’re at it. The duo that comprises Elika–with Brian Wenckebach on guitar and programming and Evangelia Maravelias’s vocals silvered in the restrained radiance of the song–join forces to produce a kind of modernized Tears for Fears album that leans into the sounds of the past to envision their possible future. But they’ve sent Roland Orzabald a well-earned retirement check in the mail and replaced him with Eva’s hypnotically airy vocals, and they’re not looking back.

This is no retro band; Elika’s vision is far more independent than derivative. And if the intentions behind a name like Fiercely Indie Records, Elika’s label, is that their brand of indie boasts big dripping wolf fangs and the claws of a cougar, they did well to prove the point by signing these two. While Benatar’s crystal wail does flourish somewhere in the distance of Eva’s vocal delivery, she tempers that gargantuan influence with a whispery restraint and grace that rivals Dolores O’Riordan. The ghost of Nico may haunt the aching and eerie “To the End,” but a lambent burst of synth and guitar ignite the song into something wholly Elika’s own. Brian Wenkebach, for his part, channels the atmospherics of guitar luminaries like Nick McCabe, Robert Quine or Paul Reynolds while leaving little doubt as to whose sound he serves–his.

Elika themselves describe their sound as “blissed-out ambience with head-nodding beats that range from Downtempo to Trance to IDM.” That’s about right, and it’s this bold union of influence and authenticity that promises to help Elika see the day when you don’t have to be from Brooklyn to know who they are. The peculiarly engaging power of their debut album, Trying Got Us Nowhere, guarantees that it won’t be long now.

A Culturespill Flashback: Andi Starr’s “Me Beautiful”

30th April

Starr 3

I step into the stale air of Barnes & Noble, where a logo and four-dollar cappuccino replaces the mug and first-name basis of the local coffee house. The store flanks a highway choked with the obnoxious and insistent neon glow of corporate excess. An enormous Best Buy sign juts out with blinding hues of yellow and blue; the golden arches of McDonald’s glimmer over the road. Another Longhorn steakhouse announces itself amid a vast island of blacktop carved up by bold white lines; the ground stained with oil of Fords, Hondas, Buicks and SUVs. This is the new scenery down in Stuart, Florida — one of the fastest growing towns in America. Where there were dirt roads, there are traffic lights. Where there were fruit stands, there is Walmart, Petco, Wendy’s. Ten years ago you could drive through this town without passing a single car.

I did not come here for a four-dollar cappuccino; nor am I interested in a grande soy vanilla latte, thank you. I am here for the music. Specifically, Live at Benaroya Hall, a two-disc unplugged set by Pearl Jam featuring a vicious and timely rendition of Dylan’s “Masters of War.” “Come you masters of war,” Eddie Vedder bellows, his haunted voice poised to burst through the Ozone, “you that build all the guns/you that build the death planes/you that build all the bombs.”

Most of my fellow shoppers, though, are not exactly clamoring for the “P” section. It is 2004, and Mike, my friend behind the counter, tells me that Ashlee Simpson’s “debut album” (how loosely we Americans have come to use these terms) just became the store’s #1 best seller. The “record,” as it is being called, was released just hours ago. “You know, she already had her own TV show before ever making an album,” Mike says, “meanwhile, Pearl Jam gathers dust on the shelf.” But after driving through a wilderness of advertising and corporate glitter on my way to work each morning, Mike’s revelation is hardly an astonishment. So I wipe the dust off my copy, toss a crumpled receipt in the trash by the door, and dart for my car stereo, Circuit City’s crimson insignia glowering from across the street.

But even Vedder and his taut guitar duo of McCreedy and Ament do not prepare me for the allures of Andi Starr, whose album, Me Beautiful, waits for me in my mailbox. No, Ms. Starr does not have any sisters on TV, and you probably haven’t heard of her. Starr, a local singer/songwriter from Oregon promoted by her manager/husband, writes great songs and prefers to keep her clothes on, if you please. The album, Starr’s second, offers neither Gwen Stefani’s navel nor Britney Spears’ latest hair color. No wonder I don’t see her photo next to Ashlee Simpson’s in Barnes & Noble display windows.

Nor is it any surprise to hear Starr singing “hold a mirror up to your soul/not your face/up to your heart.” As the opening track’s patient crescendo of piano, guitar and drums blooms into a soundscape entirely her own, I quickly understand that Starr’s songs cut deeper than flesh, further than bone. “I would crawl inside of you,” she croons amid “Little Angel’s” hushed ambiance, “to find the room that is dark.” But Starr, who confesses to a terror of performing and “being seen,” is a bit modest. There is nothing conditional about it: these songs do crawl inside of you, and as the biographical note on her Web site asserts, “If Andi’s music doesn’t follow you, haunt you, comfort you, awaken you, challenge you, inspire you, then you’re simply not listening.”

Starr 4

Andi Starr hits the right notes: the notes that hurt, the notes that know you, the notes that make you meet yourself. If glass had a voice it would sing like this woman. Fragile and clean, listening to her vocals is like peeking through the wiped window of an abandoned house. It is dark inside but you look a little harder, you want to know what’s in there. Gradually you begin to discern the silhouette of a coffee stand, the impression of a light switch, the beveled edges of a mirror. You can almost make out the angles where walls come together to form the corners of the room.

The brilliance of Starr’s work — truly a refreshing experience — is in its refusal to flip the light on. Me Beautiful never exposes more than shapes and shadows strewn about its dimly lit landscape of sound. Songs like “Wash Away,” with its gentle and surprising gust of mandolin and percussion, allow listeners to imagine and participate where so many of her more renowned contemporaries condescend and overindulge. The structured harmonies of many of these songs are as taut as any radio single without compromising the artist’s integrity.

Starr’s voice and lyrics plead with the past: the bruises of its memories and the dreams of its pleasures. Yet, for all the album’s complicated emotions and ideas, Starr herself seems to put it best in the end: “it’s simpler than we make it out to be/yeah it’s simpler than we make it out to be.” This may or may not be true of life, but it certainly speaks accurately for the music. That is precisely the thing that cannot be said of so much product hurled upon the masses by many of pop music’s female singer/songwriters. Andi Starr is new because her music is a familiar echo of the roots that made it possible: from Joni Mitchell and Cindy Lauper on down to Julie Miller and Aimee Mann. Starr’s voice combines the earnestness and intensity of this eclectic heritage into one cohesive force. One can only hope that it will soon be a force of change and influence.

Special Feature: Rescuing Annie Leibovitz

29th April

by Sara Mrozinski

Cyrus

I don’t want to be the last one caught beating a dead horse, but much remains to be said about the latest Miley Cyrus photo debacle. For those of you who have been living in a media-free hole over the past week (lucky you), one of our most loathed “Plastic Wannabes” Miley Cyrus was recently immortalized by the famed Annie Leibovitz. While I acknowledge that Annie Leibovitz herself has recently become a media mogul of sorts due to her rising popularity among the stars, she remains, without question, the most talented female photographer of our time.

An opportunity not even the densest of airheads would turn down, Miley not only gratefully took the offer to be shot by Leibovitz, but also helped create the shot itself. As seen in footage from the shoot, Miley’s parents and family attended the shoot and agreed on the shots before they were submitted to Vanity Fair. Shortly after the shoot took place Miley was quoted saying “I think it’s really artsy. It wasn’t in a skanky way. Annie took, like, a beautiful shot, and I thought that was really cool.” The question is, what happened between the shoot and press time to cause Miley and her family to completely reject the photos?

Bored conservatives happened. It never occurred to Miley how the mothers and fathers of her major demographic of fans would perceive the photos. This is a group of people so desensitized by the media and dangerous ideologies that openness toward art would never be a possibility. It is no surprise that their responses include degrading statements to Miley’s image and Leibovit’s artistic ability. It is a surprise, however, to read the endless barrage of insults thrown Leibovit’s way from the media. TimesOnline contributor Janice Turner wrote that Leibovitz employed “the trick dirty-old-men artists have employed to seduce vulnerable girls through the ages: she persuaded Miley that the pictures were “artistic”. Artistic? Eew! Is it contagious?

Thumb

To imply that Annie Leibovitz is some back-alley vaudevillian snapshot pedophilic hustler is grounds for decapitation. It is certain that Leibovitz is in no short supply for money or fame, but is it to be assumed that her shot of Miley Cyrus was deceptively concocted to snatch a dirty pic of the most popular teen in America for unclean reasons? Even more doubtful. Being a photographer myself, I have encountered similar situations with absolutely-not-famous people a few times. It is common to shoot people who are most themselves in front of the lens, but demand removal of shots after the fact when the reaction of others comes into play. It is hard for people to allow their innermost being to be displayed for others to see willingly.

But the act of demanding retraction of harmless photos shows low self-esteem and immaturity at its most volatile level. This is clear in Miley’s reaction, and it’s hers that matters most: “I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be ‘artistic’ and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed. I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about.”

What she really never intended to happen was to lose money or to be threatened by Disney to lose her brain-draining show, and that is what she deeply cares about. Most disturbingly, her reaction shows her age. Miley is a 15 year old with more money and power than all ofmiddle America combined. Will Miley Cyrus’s sheepish immaturity and her culturally-bubbled right-winging posse finally tarnish America’s most beloved photographer’s reputation? Probably not, but it is certain this “dead horse” won’t be laid to rest until every visionless conservative tool has had their say.

22 Years Later: Why Neil Young’s “Landing on Water” Deserves a Second Listen

28th April

Young

Of all the 60s legends who took baffling artistic detours through the decade Kris Kristofferson described as “shipwrecked,” Neil Young’s was by far the most fascinating. And Lord knows there were some “detours.” By the time Landing On Water came out in ’86, Dylan continued to languish in the alcoholic aftermath of a schizophrenic religious identity that produced material both interesting and intolerable (mostly the latter—and if you doubt that for one second, give a listen to Slow Train Comin’s “When You Gonna Wake Up” and let me know how you feel in the morning. Typical side effects include severe nausea, blurred vision, and sudden death.) The Stones, for their part, long-before settled into a steady offering of McSingles on albums they recorded with gritted teeth from opposite ends of a studio, tolerating one another only out of greed to produce records like Dirty Work, an album full of furiously delivered songs whose titles reflect the animosities of the band—“Too Rude,” “Had it With You.” You get the picture.

After responding to the epic success of the Rust albums with characteristically unpredictable forays into inaccessible pseudo-punk (Reactor) and rickety folk meanderings (Hawks & Doves)–exchanging main stream acceptance for the worship of anonymous new wave dorks in the underground clubs of New York and L.A.–Neil Young journeyed to places few of his fans were willing to go: the electronica beats of Trans which, we later learned, featured electronically distorted vocals that emerged from attempts at communicating through a computer with his son Ben, a quadriplegic suffering from cerebral palsy (Neil’s charitable efforts to defeat the condition are legendary and ongoing.)

In retrospect, the 80s are as legendary a period in Neil Young’s career as his 70s heyday–not because the music was great, but precisely because it wasn’t, culminating in the now-infamous lawsuit David Geffen filed against Young for making music that didn’t sound Neil Young enough (Geffen won.) Many like to call Landing on Water Neil’s worst album, but that distinction–if we really must make it–belongs to the morbidly produced Everybody’s Rockin, the musical middle finger to Geffen Records Neil recorded a few years earlier. While Springsteen and Joel discovered new voices with 50s nostalgia pieces like “Pink Cadillac” and “Uptown Girl” around the same time, Neil’s flirtation with similar curiosities reflected, if anything, a voice that had become all but irretrievable.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: “Sleeps With Angels”

It is hardly a surprise, then, that Landing on Water further exemplifies the erratic artistic indulgences Young favored at the time, with its characteristically grungy licks and riffs laid over a jarring and misguided cacophony of synthesized drums and rhythms. It isn’t just that the album sounds dated in 2008; the production is so insular that it was destined to sound dated before the year of its release came to a close.

And yet, despite all this, Landing on Water contains three essential performances that open-minded fans will learn to appreciate. “Hippie Dream”–with its moving eulogy for the bygone days of flower power–is a biting indictment of an era he helped define. “Another flower child / goes to seed / in an ether-filled room / of meat hooks. / It’s so ugly, / so ugly,” Young sings of his cocaine-addled brother in arms, David Crosby, a disturbingly prophetic anticipation of the liver transplant Crosby would receive nine years later. Other tunes like “Drifter” and “Touch the Night” showcase a Neil Young who almost finds his groove amid the album’s synth-laden idiosyncrasies.

These songs are treasures of an artistic vision stretching to fathom the boundaries of its expression, and the ambition of the material it produced at that time is, to my ears, every bit as beautiful as Young’s best work. It may not always have sounded great—in fact, it usually strained just to sound listenable. But Neil’s refusal to look away from less familiar artistic terrain is exactly the kind of edginess his reputation is founded on, and it is the good fan who understands that glories like Sleeps With Angels, Freedom and Ragged Glory could not have been possible without the misadventures that preceded them.