December 2004 Archives

a house and a twig and a legion

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Twig first: the band, actually. I posted a song by Julie Kantner's circa-1990 band Fertile Virgin back in July; here's a brief, flavorful single by her subsequent band, Twig's "Fall of Love" (MP3), originally released on Harriet Records back about ten years ago. (Thanks to Julie for permission to post this. She also notes that it was accidentally mastered to be slightly too fast; "adjust to taste.") The slow/fast strategy (where a lot of bands would've used quiet/loud instead) is a great idea, and so is the way their harmonies go with the creeping-vine twin guitars.

I wanted to avoid even dropping hints about this until it happened, but it's finally a done deal: Lisa and I are homeowners! We've bought a house in the Kerns neighborhood of Northeast Portland: a 1907 building in a style probably best described as "fake Dutch Colonial." We're very happy about this.

I had my reservations about the Mark Waid/Barry Kitson re-re-re-re-reboot of Legion of Super-Heroes (wait, how many times has DC trashed the previous continuity and started from scratch?), but the first issue is really impressive: the sort of subtextual premise for talking about the present by pretending you're talking about a thousand years in the future that the LSH franchise has never quite had before, along with a totally credible excuse for its enormous cast. (The concept this time is that the Legion's not a super-hero team, exactly: it's a political youth movement, with about 75,000 idealistic, anachronism-loving-to-the-point-of-wrongheadedness adherents who have no time for realpolitik even when it's a good idea.) I've got a real sentimental attachment to these characters (enough that I've basically considered LSHv4 #61 the actual end of their story), and this is the first comic in a long time that's captured what I like about them.

wave heating

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The exciting news is that Mike McGonigal's got an MP3 blog now--I can think of very few people better suited to do one, and he's already posted some mindblowing stuff. Go and drink deeply.

And you, Douglas? How about some MP3s from you? Yeah yeah yeah--brought back a big stack of singles from New York, and now I need to go about getting permission from the artists. If anybody has a direct contact for someone in the Shop Assistants, Boredoms, Bunnygrunt, Bush Tetras, Serenas, Alastair Galbraith, Velocity Girl, Honey Tongue, Olive Lawn, Silver Jews, Brief Weeds, Twang, Scud & Nomex, Sleepyhead, Sammy, Scrawl, Bulldozer Crash, the Suspicions (okay that one's David Cunningham but I don't have an email address for him), Sudden Sway, the Sleestacks, Dawson, the Cherubs, Majesty Crush, Michael Nyman (!), Tony/Anthony More, Jud Jud, Cha-Cha Cohen, Maximum Joy, Paula Frazer, Good Horsey, the Lowest Note, Mambo Taxi, Slant 6, the Polly Shang Kuan Band, Huggy Bear or Destroyer, could you let me know via private email?

Especially the Sleestacks. Oh man.

I'm thinking about expanding the scope of the MP3s I post here beyond 7" vinyl, as much fun as that is--there's lots of other things I'd love to share around. Of course, there are also some things that are awfully tough to get permission for. I just dug up my copy of Tommy (In Seven Minutes), which is what you think it is--twelve bands doing a rather abridged version of it.

Edie, our beloved sassy American shorthair, has figured out that something's definitely up with Lisa, she's climbing all over her all the time, and giving her reproachful looks like "oh, yeah, brush me off now, but when that litter arrives you're gonna need some help around this place. You don't have nearly enough teats, girlfriend."

should "wheel" really rhyme with "wheel"?

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Lisa and I have been attempting to play "The WIndmills of Your Mind" on our ukuleles. Although I think this version is a more sensible approach to it than my own.

I actually thought, a couple of days ago, wouldn't it be fun to work out uke arrangements of everything on Dusty in Memphis? Answer: in much the same way that it would be fun to swim straight through Mount Hood.

how to disgruntle an atomic bomb

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Warning: this is ridiculously long, & includes an entire article I wrote a few years ago. My friend Ann and I have been having a discussion of the idea that it's wise to consider any work you've done "the best you could do at the time." Here's what I wrote to her (and please note that this is both provisional and meant to provoke some argument):

This makes me think of three particular musicians I admire and by whom I'm totally frustrated.

The first one's Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. An absolutely great band; Loveless and the You Made Me Realise EP are about as good as music gets. But Shields has been working on his follow-up for more than 13 years now--recording and recording and recording until he nearly bankrupted at least one record company. He supposedly went through a drum 'n' bass period back when drum 'n' bass was a new thing, and then trashed all of that when he took too long working on it and drum 'n' bass got played out. It's not like he's lost his touch--in the late '90s, he went through a period where he needed money and agreed to do some remixes for other artists, and a couple of them were completely amazing too. But those bands were able to pry them out of his hands, because they had their own release dates. Ditto for the songs he did for the "Lost in Translation" soundtrack. Now he's supposedly working on two huge boxed sets... collecting all the pre-'91 MBV stuff plus outtakes & live things. Except I've also heard he hasn't actually started working on them. A year ago, he gave an interview where he said he "plans on releasing a short album as soon as possible." No further word since then. Should he console himself by thinking what he's been doing is the best he can do at the time? No--although it wouldn't be a bad idea for him to occasionally think "further tinkering isn't going to make it any better, so I can stop now." He's enormously talented, still, but he clearly needs an external force to which he's beholden to a) get him to start working and b) get him to stop working--insist that he's done and make him turn over the goods. He's not willing to let go of stuff until it's perfect, and it's never perfect to him--even when, you know, it's done.

The second one is Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices. The problem is only partly that he has, apparently, no sense of quality control, and pumps out half a dozen albums a year of whatever he's got on hand, great, good or awful. (History, and greatest-hits compilers, can take care of that--their actual greatest-hits album isn't the one I would've assembled, but someday somebody will get it right.) The big issue is that he has no sense of creative discipline, either: he suggests that the only work that's got the right energy & spontaneity is the very first draft, and most of his songs sound like sketches for songs, or like the kind of throwaway exercises other people might do to get the juices flowing. This was kind of exciting the first time or two he did it--I still think Bee Thousand is a terrific album (and, notably, it was sequenced by somebody else from a whole lot of raw material)--but after he made Bee Thousand III, IV, V and VI, and started getting other people to send him instrumental pieces over which he could sing what seem like first takes of the first words and melodies that came to mind, it got REALLY painful. I think around 1997 I just started yelling "FINISH THE DAMN SONG" every time I put on a Pollard/GBV album and came across something he clearly had babbled out and then left in, or a song-nubbin that petered out after a verse and a half.

Should he console himself by thinking what he's been doing is the best he can do? No--he's convinced himself that halfassedness is, y'know, his style, and so he tends to pronounce his songs finished the moment he hits the stop button for the first time, even as he coasts on the times he's actually applied himself to going over a song for more than a few minutes, developing it, cutting bad lines and replacing them with good ones, doing repeated takes until the band gets it basically right, etc. It's inconvenient, so he doesn't do it much, and he's got a following who will buy anything he releases in the hopes of finding a few gold flakes. But the black muck they're embedded in doesn't tend to show up much in, say, his live shows.

The third one is Martin Phillipps, from the Chills, who I think has been sabotaging himself for years. He just sent out a newsletter to his fans in which, as he's been doing for ages, he goes on and on about the records he's going to make--or rather the records he's intending to write and then record--and also the new techniques he's planning to try for writing the songs on the records he's going to make. (You can see where this is heading.) He also apologizes for having made headlines for shoplifting some groceries a couple of weeks ago, and for the fact that the EP they just put out this fall, after quite a few years' silence, has "few truly A Grade Chills moments." Here's an article I wrote about the band a couple of years ago (in the Chicago Reader)--


Chills fans have had to put up with almost 20 years of excuses. If only Martin Phillipps had been able to keep a band together, instead of going through 14 configurations in the group's first 12 years. If only the mix of their first album, 1988's delicate Brave Words, hadn't sounded so odd. If only drummer Martyn Bull hadn't died of leukemia just as things were starting to take off. If only their major-label records had been better promoted. If only visa trouble hadn't forced Phillipps to make Sunburnt with a pickup band. If only two of his tape recorders hadn't malfunctioned at the same time a few years later, plunging him into deep depression and addiction to "opiates" (his word); if only he hadn't gotten hepatitis from the aforesaid addiction; if only if only if only.

The real problem is that Phillipps, a remarkably talented songwriter, has gradually come to believe that he's an important songwriter. When he formed the Chills in 1980, his home town of Dunedin, New Zealand, was in the middle of an unlikely music boom, and he became one of its brightest lights. Phillipps' songs were grounded in the sweet, chiming concision of '60s pop. He was a melodist and a romantic, un-macho and self-aware, sometimes almost prayerful: "I'd like to say how I love you/But it's all been said in other songs/And if I try to say it new, then I'll say it wrong," he sang in "Night of Chill Blue."

Between 1982 and 1989, the local label Flying Nun released a handful of Chills singles, an EP, and Brave Words--not much to show for nine years. In the liner notes to the band's new three-disc retrospective, Secret Box, Phillipps notes that "there would have been two (maybe three) albums prior to Brave Words if things had worked out better." Then he suggests their track listings.

Phillipps seems to be a perpetually dissatisfied perfectionist, but his prolific creativity used to offset it--the Chills played many more songs than they ever got around to recording, and he claims to have written hundreds more. But he wanted Chills records to be important records, projects with a streamlined purpose, and a lot of the songs didn't fit any particular bill. The sound of Submarine Bells, the band's 1990 major-label debut and first seriously funded recording, was the sound of Phillipps realizing his old ambitions: a moonlit midwinter dip in the Beach Boys' ocean. The subsequent Soft Bomb was the sound of him tripping over his new ones: the line in the sand was the painful "Song for Randy Newman Etc.," in which he laments the difficulty of being a serious songwriter and compares himself to "men like Wilson, Barrett, Walker, Drake." That soggy, pretentious ballad couldn't withstand the comparisons, and neither would anything he'd release after it.

The Chills followed Soft Bomb with an American tour, and when stardom didn't beckon, they broke up. True to form, they debuted a new instrumental at their final show--half a world away from home, in New York City. Three years later, Phillipps assembled a new version of the band, rechristening it Martin Phillipps & the Chills--a bad sign. The aforementioned Sunburnt was recorded in England shortly thereafter, and lineups 15-18 struggled along through the mid-90s; in 1999 Phillipps assembled yet another bunch of newbies as lineup 19 in late 1999. All of his new songs were infected with a sense of self-importance. There was talk of reconvening the early Chills to record some of the unreleased songs from the old days, but it was just talk. Then Phillipps released Sketch Book: Volume One, a collection of his home demos. "Many of these tunes, and the hundreds more filed away, will definitely see official release as soon as my next home studio is fully operational," he promised in the liner notes. He now claims that he has over 800 ideas and riffs and such, and he's just trying to organize them on his computer so that they can turn into completed songs. But Phillipps has noted elsewhere that "Pink Frost," one of his best and best-known songs, was written in a single evening, and there's a lesson there.

Phillipps released Secret Box himself; it's available on his Web site, It's three and a half hours of unreleased or scarce Chills recordings, and on some level, it's an admission of failure--he seems to have realized at last that his grand plans for these compositions are never going to come through. But he can't quite let go: "This could have been beautiful if developed (and it still could be)," he notes of a 19-year-old instrumental. 1987's "Party in My Heart" is "to be re-attempted some day." "Drug Magicians," from 1989, "is on the short list of songs I really feel deserves a new recording... I think of this as a demo version." And so on.

Fortunately, Phillipps was proud enough of what he and the Chills did accomplish that he was willing to suppress his perfectionism and release Secret Box. The BBC radio sessions that occupy half of the second disc are decent but generally "unreleased" only in the sense that they're slightly different arrangements of familiar material; the B sides and wanna-B sides of the third disc document the band's '87-era peak and slow decline. But the first disc and a third are the real deal, featuring 30 lost songs drawn from raw, roaring live tapes and sequenced for aesthetics rather than chronology. The earliest is a cover of Jody Reynolds's rockabilly hit "Endless Sleep" recorded the day before their first gig; the latest are four from an October 1985 show.

Though the recordings are messy, they're more lively than the sculptured fastidiousness of studio versions. "Jellyhead" and "Smile From a Dead Dead Face" work up so much momentum the band seems downright disappointed when they stop; "And When You're There" features one of the Chills' most resonant melodies; on the theological complaint "Frozen Fountain" Phillipps screams so hard his voice gives out halfway through. There are some throwaways (like "Steinlager," a rocking request for somebody to hand a bottle up to the stage) but they're wonderful throwaways: in fact, the less Phillipps tries to do something significant, the more his natural inventiveness and passion comes through. With their garbage-can beats and blazing organ, the live Chills sound like a garage band, not a sensitive songwriter project.

It's too bad that releasing Secret Box hasn't allowed Phillips to move on or inspired him to return to the values of his early songwriting. Every album he's made from Submarine Bells onward has had the initials S.B., including the yet-to-be-realized but thoroughly preannounced Silver Bullets and Shadow Ballads; now he's making noises about remixing Brave Words and calling it Spoken Bravely. But at least now the sad task of fantasizing about the Chills records that might've been has been passed on to the listeners.


So. Is Martin P. doing the best he can do? Should he take comfort in that? No, I think that's actually the excuse he indulges in for his total inability to get his shit together--you know, stuff went wrong, it's not his fault. Yes, all kinds of obstacles have arisen in the Chills' path, some of them not even of Phillipps' own making. Obstacles arise in EVERYBODY's path, and none of his were insurmountable. His problem is mostly that he dodges a lot of the responsibility for his failures, but also significantly in his perpetual disconnect between conception and execution of his ideas. Which leads me to my after-a-few-days manifesto:

It's the duty of people who want to be serious about making stuff, & already have the necessary basic skills, to:

1) Plan projects that are realistically within their abilities (mantra for this stage: "I get to talk it up when it's mostly done, and not before" a.k.a. "don't let your mouth write a check that your ass can't cash");

2) Execute them to completion, assiduously and very carefully, attempting in earnest to respond to all significant and legitimate objections an ideal reader/viewer/listener/whatever might have, and being clear-eyed about the difference between major and minor flaws (mantra for this stage: "Is this boring or lame? How can I fix that?");

3) Finish them when they're almost done, remaining minor flaws or no, and let go of them when they're done (mantra for this stage: "There's more where that came from"); and

4) Assess them as ferociously as possible once they're done, to figure out what their weak points are, and how not to repeat those mistakes in the next project (mantra for this stage: "How could I have done better? How can I make something different and better--not necessarily bigger--than this?").

Kevin Shields and especially Martin Phillipps fail in category 1; Robert Pollard fails in category 2; Phillips and especially Shields fail in category 3; Pollard and occasionally Phillipps fail in category 4.

Of course, implied in this is my preference for ambitious, completed, earnest failures over all things half-assed and all things incomplete. But I think that's a good preference.

Does this make any sense?

open the floor

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To tide you over until I can start digitizing things again, here's a neat thing from the semi-official Was (Not Was) site: this page links to a cover of Bob Dylan's "Dignity" from an as-yet-unreleased W(NW) album of Dylan songs "performed in the style of early '50s Chicago blues." A surprisingly good idea. I want to hear the rest now.

The Bruder and I just went to a not-as-good-as-we-thought-it'd-be party, although its outer-space theme gave me an excuse to borrow a Sun Ra-style robe/neckpiece/hat combination that she had lying around. (Lots of people commented on it.) But the DJ; ouch. As Kyle Baker once said, playing "Louie Louie" is like reminding people they're having fun. Following it with "Blister in the Sun"--well, that's left as an exercise for the reader.

Celebrity spotting, of sorts, on the 6 train: Al Goldstein. Carrying lots of bags, but looking surprisingly healthy.

a few things to point out

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1) A couple of recent pieces for the Voice I'm pretty happy with (on Nirvana, Cristina, and the stupidity of digital-rights-management schemes)--see the column to the left (on the front page) for links.

2) Saw the Pixies and Mission of Burma last night at the Hammerstein Ballroom; had a serious complaint about it; registered my complaint on Amy Phillips' and Caryn Brooks' live-show-report blog More in the Monitor.

3) One thing I didn't mention on that Pixies post: I kept secretly hoping they'd play "Motherbanger." Which I can go right on hoping. (And if you don't know what I'm talking about, see WFMU's current On the Download page, which also includes Mike Lupica's stroke-of-genius remix of "Holiday Road" and a couple of other remarkable oddities.)

4) Meredith and I attended the closing party today for the legendary Lower East Side restaurant Ratner's. In my years as a ravenous, impecunious, skinny-ish Jewish 20something in NYC, I went there a bunch--I loved their tooth-seducing onion rolls with their thick layer of caramelized onion sweetness, and I loved the fact that they would keep bringing you onion rolls, no matter how many you ate. After a few years, they opened the Lansky Lounge, a bar I don't think I ever went into; when they decided to have the Lounge open on Friday nights, Ratner's itself was officially dekosherized, and the Orthodox Jews who were a good part of its business stopped coming. The restaurant proper closed down a few years ago, and now the building's being demolished in a few weeks. As a send-off, Ratner's advertised that they were having a party in the old restaurant with their menu items at 1905 prices. I thought: a last taste of those onion rolls! Nickel bowls of borscht! But no. They just had all-you-can-eat (for free) trays of the specialty frozen food line that's the only thing that will carry on the Ratner's name: latkes (not bad at all, and I'd been craving latkes all Chanukah), potato knishes (rubbery and suboptimal), and blintzes (including chocolate blintzes, which are The Thing That Should Not Be). Between this and the froufrouization of Kiev, I feel like there's a part of the culinary past of NYC that's been slamming shut behind me. All I can say is that the B&H Dairy had better keep selling their challah by the chunk.

5) The WTF factor of Steve Gerber's early-'70s issues of Defenders is, as promised, astronomical. On the recommendation of the I Love Comics board (currently malfunctioning, or I'd link), I picked up most of the "Headmen" sequence (#31-40, plus an annual I don't have yet), and... well, I see where Grant Morrison got some of his battier ideas for Doom Patrol. Especially the brain-transplant-related ideas.


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Maui, I'm happy to report, was beautiful, and exactly as relaxing as I'd been promised. A few highlights: The Hana Highway has every shade of green, ever. The whole island has lots of fruit stands with wonderful fruit that one does not find in the continental U.S.: apple bananas, pineapple guavas, weird little tart star-shaped cherries; sometimes they're on the honor system, and when they're not, they usually have fantastic banana bread. The Blue Pool near Hana and its associated red-sand beach are totally TOTALLY worth the irate signs, bumpy dirt road and jagged boulders you have to get through to get there. The Two Mermaids on the Sunnyside of Maui B&B is ridiculously charming, and run by a pair of women who really love to play hostess. The airport's corridors are mostly open-air, just because. The Fresh Mint is an exceptionally good vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant in Paia. Radio is almost entirely local programming and local music. I bought a pineapple-shaped soprano ukulele.

One little favorite memory: Hasegawa's General Store in Hana, which has... a very broad selection of things for sale. They used to have a bumper sticker that said


and the joke was that it was not entirely a joke. Next to the cash register (beneath the fishing rods, ukuleles and crepe paper), there are plastic bags full of oozy purple poi, and a sign that says "PLEASE DO NOT PLAY WITH THE POI!" The guy in front of me at the cash register had clearly just come down from the mountains for the first time in a very, very long time; he was buying a huge bag of rice and about 30 pounds of frozen ground beef.

Quick request: could everyone I've met in person who's reading this please email me your current snailmail address (see "write to me" link at left)? I have something I want to send you.

Some more NaSoAlMo albums (and can I just say again how delighted I am that this worked out so nicely for so many people?)::

Lord Eric Haugen's Soma Sex Dreams is here.

Bryce Durbin made this.

Eli Chartkoff's When Science and Appliance Meet We All Go Bare is here.

Miguelito Contraband's Caveat Empty is here.

Walkathon's Misguided Missile is here.

Also, check out Simon from archive dot org's comment in the previous post, especially if you made a NaSoAlMo album--he's interested in archiving what everyone did.

so how'd it go?

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December 1, folks. How'd everybody's NaSoAlMo solo albums go?

I know a handful of people who finished them have posted them online--as I get the info I'll post it here.

Here is Lauren Kristen Mullen's Speedwalking.

Cash Nexus's Melonballer is here, and here's the story of how it was made.

Here is Nicholas Venaglia's At Least I Tried.

Alex Goddard has a zip file of his album here, and writes about the process of recording it here.

Ryan Walsh has cover art and an offer to hear his album here.

Nick Dukes has artwork and a track listing here; some sound files are linked from his journal, too.

Heavyconfetti's The New Kitsch is here.

More as I hear about 'em.

Oh, and if anybody wants to make an easy and truly delicious thing for any holiday parties you happen to be going to, here's the recipe for the rosemary-roasted hazelnuts I made for Thanksgiving (recipe courtesy of The Farm, one of my favorite Portland restaurants):

4 cups Oregon hazelnuts
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon salt
5 dashes or so Tabasco

Mix everything together well. Pour into a 9" x 13" baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Stir, leaving the dish in the oven (use a long spoon). Bake for another 5-8 minutes, stirring once or twice more, until the sugar's pretty much melted and everything's shiny. Remove from oven and spread out on a lightly oiled cookie sheet. Cool completely and transfer to an airtight storage container. Nibble. Watch everybody else at your gathering keep sidling over to nibble too.