Monday, March 22, 2010


You can’t see and hear everything (so get your money’s worth). This is an important lesson of life in the world also, of course, that since it can’t all be seen and done, then one must define one’s self and situation for maximum enjoyment. In the case of SXSW, that meant for me to see the big names, including Ray Davies, John Hiatt, Smokey Robinson. I paid over $100 for my locals’ wrist-band and I want my money’s worth (I can pass for ‘local’ in 42 cities in 18 countries… without lying… much). Until Big Star at least (more later), Ray Davies was the highlight of the show, playing an excellent set both with and without LA’s ‘88’ backing him up. I had a high-priced badge last time but have since learned my lesson. Why pay to hear self-appointed experts ruminate over the future of the music industry? Hell, I can do that.

It can get extremely cold extremely fast. This is another of life’s lessons. Thursday and Friday were so beautiful that it’s easy to take such for granted. But when a cold front moved in, Saturday was absolutely brutal. That’s no problem when you’re inside, of course, but that’s not what a festival is all about. I had planned to get serious about seeing groups I’d missed on the previous two days, but all that is useless speculation when you have to walk eight blocks with a wind chill factor approaching 0 degrees F.

All music is local. Austin has taken a rap on the knuckles, if not the speakers, for being so white, i.e. no hip-hop. What next, do they have to apologize for being so happy and well-adjusted, so liberal and so successful? For one thing, Austin is only ten percent black, and the show reflects that. It IS maybe thirty-forty percent Hispanic, and the show reflects that. For another thing, the level of musicianship is high in Austin. That’s not always the case with hip-hop music- OR ‘world music’ OR ‘indie’ either- for that matter. I know world music groups that dress in ‘traditional’ costume- fit to kill- but who can barely play their instruments. That doesn’t cut it. Likewise with the typical hip-hop ‘tude- it’s the tunes, Homie, not the ‘tude, that counts. Trash-talking doesn’t cut it with me. Neither does bashing your bitch.

People die. In this case, the death in question is that of Alex Chilton, former Box Top (“The Letter”) and Big Star, arguably the first ‘indie band’ and huge influence to REM, the Replacements, and everything that came after. Just last week I caught myself thinking, “I wonder whatever happened to Alex Chilton?” Now maybe that’s not so strange until you consider that I’d never heard the man’s music until yesterday. Flashback to 1985, and I’m living in Berkeley, selling items on Telegraph Ave. and contemplating the future of rock & roll over lunch of pesto pizza. The classic era is long gone of course, ditto psychedelia, blues-rock, folk-rock, country-rock, punk-rock and many other hyphen-ated, apostrophe’d concoctions of music including some that I really- I mean REALLY- didn’t like, e.g. glam and glitter, bubblegum and disco, etc. until now there’s only… nothing… all R&R returned to the commercial pop schlock from which it originally emerged and to which it finally succumbed, to an industry emboldened and fortified by the massive export success of the Eagles, the Bee Gees, John Denver, and other such ‘cross-overs’. ‘New Wave’ held great promise, but that only, it too the victim of its own pretensions and excesses.

There was only one hope left, ‘college radio’, an undefined but apparently thriving underground entity that celebrated the process of creation and discovery itself, real R & R, ‘teen spirit’ if you will… more than album sales. Though the groups all differed and were hardly a genre, they all said the same thing- it started with Alex Chilton. Now he’s dead. He was supposed to play SXSW with a revived Big Star, but died three days before the gig. Cause of death- too much life, maybe? I like the death certificates in Thailand, ‘heart stopped beating’. No sheet, Somchai, just open the casket one last time before you torch it. I want to see the skid marks.

Bottom line: Austin is the star of SXSW, and so are their musicians. After hearing some disappointing ‘world music’ and ‘indie’ stuff… and popping into shows at random and popping right back out after being subjected to head-banging ‘metal’ (give me some hip-hop, please!), I finally started concentrating on the local shows. That’s what this festival is all about, after all. They need us once a year to help support some hundred entertainment venues, but that’s about all. They’ve got a home-grown music scene second to none. Next time I’m not even sure I’ll bother with the wrist band. They don’t count for much down on South Congress. That’s where Alejandro had his post-show show last night. And with people like Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Band) and Chuck Prophet on that bill, you don’t have to worry too much about being guillotined by a cowboy hat. Just call it ‘Americana’ music; this, after all, is America.

What’s that? You don’t like my four noble truths? Okay, how about this then? 1) LIFE IS FUN, 2) DESIRE IS THE CAUSE OF FUN, 3) THE FUN ENDS WHEN DESIRE ENDS, 4) THERE IS ANOTHER WAY TO MAINTAIN THE FUN- THE EIGHTFOLD PATH. Buddhism and I get along just fine. It’s just a ‘glass half-empty/glass half-full’ thing.

Thursday, March 04, 2010


Mexican music is hopping. While half-breed Lila Downs runs with the Frida Tehuana mantle and makes music more Mexican than the Mexican itself; and Brooklyn transplants Pistolera make better conjunto music than the Texicans themselves; and Mexican wanna-be Dan Zanes from Del Fuego (Ushuaia I think) makes the cutest music to satisfy the inner Mexican child in all of us… meanwhile real Mexicans ex-TJ No!/Mexpop superstar Julieta Venegas gets recast as an American indie and does duets with Nelly; and border-blasting bilingues Kinky and Nortec Collective play to large crossover audiences at festivals in LA; and Santana-buddy classicos Mana’ fill venues larger than the rest put together for hispanicos norteamericanos that the English-only audience in another US dimension neither knows about or apparently cares.

Then there’s Sweet Electra from Mexico City, now transplanted to New York City, and releasing their third album ‘The Day We Abandoned Earth’. Now there have always been cultural affinities between NYC and DF, though I’m not sure anyone noticed or cared except me and maybe the Spanish master filmmaker Luis Bunuel (Los Olvidados- ‘The Young and the Damned’- was made a full 4-5 years before Rebel without a Cause’), but it’s there nonetheless- the density, the darkness, the death wish… and the artistry. Now I don’t really know what Sweet Electra did on their first two albums- neither the website nor MySpace are giving it up freely, and I can’t find anything on the shelves here in Antananarivo- but they came to the right place. This album is pure NYC, as NYC as Lou Reed or Laurie Anderson put together (yeah, I know), albeit without the hype or any other H’s… Lila may have the huipil Tehuana, but vocalist and co-composer Nardiz Cooke has the Mona Lisa smile (at least I think that’s a smile) and ‘programmer’ Giovanni Escalera has the multi-track feedback sensibility. The only question is: is it sustainable?

The album leads off with the ambiental ditty ‘Ignition’, and then moves right into their single ‘A Feeling’… ‘inside of me… forget about everything’ which pretty much sets the tone for the album, sparse but evocative lyrics and drum kit-driven ambience. ‘Love You More’ ups the emotional ante without really coming to any conclusion- ‘Every time I look at your empty face… I know I love you more… I didn’t mean to be this way, but I never thought I’d feel so empty…’, leaving us in a swirl of ethereal ambience and disembodied voices. ‘Backyard’ then leads us to the graveyard, crashing into chaos with strings- ‘I just wanna’ see the world from my backyard… see your face one more time. Is anybody out there…?’ ‘The Killer Silence’ is one of the album’s best tracks, with succinct lyrics- ‘the killing silence, the killing time, the killing loneliness, the killing words’- and a succinct melody… with good ol’ guitar. ‘I Am’ is a bit of an enigma, reintroducing the album and re-establishing the ambience with vocal wails over drum and keyboard-driven instrumentals, but then ‘It's Over’ returns to lyrical top dead center, the pain of love and the pain of just being- ‘I was wondering what would come next… I realized we’re together pretending… it’s all over, my love’.

The two parts of ‘Give Up’ then paint a beautiful, if stark, vision of life in the city, the first a percussion-driven version with guitars grating, the second a more orchestral version of the same thing. ‘Te Fuiste’ (‘You left’) seems to be thrown in almost as an afterthought- as if we gueros might not appreciate anything sung in espanol, but in fact is one of the albums better tracks, and if nothing else serves to prove that the sparseness of the English lyrics is not due to scarceness of English chops. The Spanish lyrics are sparse, too, not much more than road-signs to suggest something to meditate upon while you swim in the ambiance. After the spacey instrumental title track, another ‘DJ re-mix’ version of it and ‘It’s Over’ close the album… no comment. I’ve already expressed my feelings towards duplicative, if not duplicitous, ‘re-mixes’, AND THIS FROM AN ‘ELECTRONICA’ ALBUM! Fer Chrissakes, it’s all re-mix! Make up your m-f mind already! Maybe someday someone will come up with a musical ‘auteur’ theory to decide who gets the final ‘director’s cut.’ Maybe I’ll do that over lunch. ‘Re-mix’ tracks at the end of an album are starting to seem about as relevant as bloopers during a movie’s credits. How’s that for ‘no comment’?

But I like this album, even with its flaws, it settling in my mind somewhere at the crossroads of sub-conscious earth-bound pain and escapist ethereal ambiance. I can relate. Sometimes the only way to tolerate a world of human cruelty and incompetence is to create a parallel world of non-human perfection, whether it be mathematical precision or hyper-emotional ‘happy ending’ caricature. The crossroads and border areas are always fertile ground for creation and heterotic survival. To say that there’s a lot of repetition on this album would be to repeat the obvious (pun intended), but that’s not a criticism, just a ‘heads-up’. Repetition is one of the programmer’s tools, but if it all starts sounding like one never-ending song, then it’s time to go back to songwriting fundamentals of chorus and verse. Need another ‘H’ for New York? Consider ‘hooks.’ I ask again, “Is it sustainable?”

Of course there are other questions, too, like… does ‘electronica-twinged pop’ have to be sung in English, and… does it have to eschew all regional and historical influences? I doubt it. ‘Indie’ music certainly doesn’t. CafĂ© Tacuba has been doing that for years (but that voice!), and you’ve got to see ‘Maneja Beto’, an Austin group. And while you’re there, check out Del Castillo, who re-infuses ‘rock en espanol’ with classical Spanish guitar. Austin, that’s where I’ll be in a couple of weeks. See you at SXSW. Till then, check out Sweet Electra and ‘The Day We Abandoned Earth.” Because I said so, that’s why.

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