Monday, October 25, 2010

Two Bullets: Spookyland

SpookyLand - Killin' One Bird With Two Stones (EP) by showoffservices

Remember that kid in high school who had no friends and spent all of their time learning how to play Bob Dylan songs in a vain effort to try and impress people into liking them? While I can't say with any certainty that Spookyland was that kid, I'm pretty confident that statement doesn't fall far from the mark.

Let me first say that Spookyland is a solo project. A nineteen year old named Marcus Gordon writes and performs everything himself, and honestly shows quite a talent for crafting pretty pop songs. Aside from the highly derivative nature of the music, the naive lyrics and his painfully whiny signing voice, Gordon obviously has talent. The sad fact is though that having lacked a band to bounce ideas off what he has delivered is a sort of worst of both worlds EP that manages to be both incredibly self-indulgent and pathetically subservient to popular trends.

Titled the Killin' One Bird With Two Stones EP, Spookyland's debut offering is yet another worrying blemish on the rash covered and diseased flesh of modern music. Much like contemporaries such as Operator Please or Tom Ugly (about whom the less is said the better) there is an abundance of talent unfortunately caught up in a lack of taste. It just sounds like someone eager for fame and attention who mastered standard pop and blues structures and never looked back. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, look at Jack White, what makes it bad in this case is that there is a marked lack of conviction in the songs, a sense that everything is being dressed up to seem more interesting and edgy while lacking any substance under the clothes, glitter and face-paint.

Everything sounds too washed out and drenched in reverb, which matched with how overly obtuse the lyrics are at times makes it all sounds pretty fucking pathetic. When he's not spouting some nonsense along the line's of 'her eyes are like the spinning bodies of a world celestial, and I alone, anxious and fear prone gather my power bestial' (note: I just made that up) he's way too literal, singing about winning a girl a toy at the fair or throwing rocks at her window. These last lyrics are later proven to be all part of a cunning attempt at leading you to think one way, before Gordon twists your perspective at the end, an interesting choice that is unfortunately carried out with the subtlety of a back alley abortion. Like everything on this album, there are good ideas, they are all just executed poorly.

To cap it all off though his voice is just so annoying. It sounds like a year or two of making 16 year old girls croon with his whiny nonsense has led him to believe sounding like Bob Dylan before his testicles descended is a good vocal style. In reality it's both unoriginal and self harm inducingly difficult to listen to.

His press release which you can read here is full of overly literary and facile bullshit. It reads like the opening chapter of some bad choose your own adventure fantasy serial, and doesn't tell you anything about the artist other than he must be a pretentious cunt if he thought this sort of nonsense was a good way to present himself as an artist.

Really Gordon just needs a few more years to experiment, after all at 19 years of age, it's understandable his music lacks the sense of complexity it pretends to hold. The fault here doesn't land with Gordon in the end, at least not all of it, but at the feet of those predatory industry types who have heard his music, thought 'yeah young girls will cream their panties over this,' and then signed him. I don't mean to say it's intentional on their part either, they probably generally like the music, as I'm sure many others will. What's happened here is what happens all too often in the industry nowadays. An artist, with all the right influences and the right look has been picked as a cash cow. There may be some short lived fame in store for him, and if he puts his head down and really works on expanding his musical vocabulary maybe even some degree of longevity, but in the long run his music will be tossed amongst the already towering pile of disposable indie-pop that clogs up our airwaves and web pages, another slice of crap lacking any meaning after the first few listens.

It's a shame to see another semi-talented artist get sucked into the ego stroking and mythology rife industry of manufacturing indie-pop idols, but it's their own fault. If it's fame you seek, it will be fame you will find, but for how long and on what terms is decided by each artists willingness to put in the hard work rather than outsource it to the ravenous wolves of the music industry.

Two Bullets to the back of the head for Gordon and those cruelly ignorant industry fools who have built him up for an inevitable fall.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bloated Corpse: Parasites & The Music Industry

He really says it all.

Working in the music industry, the first thing I was struck by was the sheer amount of parasites, ahem, people in the employ of artists. Trying to get in contact with bands I found myself wading through an industry swamp, seething with managers, agents, publicists and booking agents, all this on top of label reps, A&R staff and whoever else had managed to leech of their creativity.

I understand artists often don't want to have to deal with the business side of things, but these small armies of industry types, none of them in possession of anything other than a fat email contacts list to justify their fees, seemed not only unnecessary but essentially damaging and counter-active for the artist. Like Albini pointed out, these people have a vested interest in the artist getting paid, not in their music being appreciated or their image being protected. The best of them might approach bands with the idea of promoting them as a whole. More often than not though, if faced with an opportunity which pays well or one that will see the band gain exposure playing to a friendly audience, these people only think about the revenue. Just think about how many times you've seen upcoming local bands playing rubbish festival slots to no one?

What this has then led to is on one hand the proliferation of these types of people, but also the proliferation of disposable, fame hungry artists to feed the industry's need for flesh on which to leech off. For every successful band there are 9 unsuccessful ones, and for each of those 9 bands there is a small swarm of people who lined their pockets out of what little success the bands had. These people don't care if you fail, by the time that's happened they've moved on, hungrily exploiting the next lot of bands eager to succeed and naive in believing that these people have their best interests at heart.

I do understand that for some bands, doing everything yourself isn't going to work. Whether because the band aren't good with business or just that they're too lazy to handle it, not every band is cut out to have to deal with the crushing grind of the music industry. Still in such cases doesn't it make more sense to employ one person who handles all of your business as an artist. If your agent, manager, publicist and booking agent are all the same person, and they work for you and you alone they only have your interests in mind, because you and you alone are their source of income. This is pretty much the 360 music management model and it has worked wonders for artists. Building such a mutually dependent partnership is far more effective than employing the services of a company which deals with a whole roster of different acts. Just think about Jerry McGuire.

If you're not one of a company's highest earning act, most of the work they do for you will be an afterthought, as these companies tend to work with quite large rosters of artists. Getting you an interview in the street press, securing you a slot on the side stage of some mid range festival, these companies are very well practiced at keeping a long list of artists happy by doing the bare minimum.

There are certain examples where working with an outside company can be beneficial I'll admit. If you were making post-punk music in the early 80s, getting picked up by Factory Records would have grabbed you a whole bunch of fans you might not have otherwise found, and it's hard to imagine The Beatles having gotten as far as they did with Brian Epstein and NEMS Enterprises behind them, but these are rare examples where a bands artistic objectives match up with the approach of the companies, and most companies nowadays don't conduct their business in the same way. All they look at is the bottom line.

While getting some tour supports or media exposure might be hard without these people on your payroll, the fact of the matter is that the music will speak for itself and it's only the most artistically bankrupt of bands who have to rely on such industry professionals to maintain their popularity. It is because of such professionals that so much sonic tripe is made popular in the first place. Management companies and booking agents can make a lot more money in the short term promoting several mediocre bands than they can by nurturing a few very talented artists, and with the industry now collapsing under the weight of it's own bloated parasite riddled corpse, the short term is all these companies can afford to think of.

Like Albini points out, it's almost pure mathematics. These company's don't have the interests of the artists at heart, all they care about is how much money the band can get, regardless of how that money will be made. Consider how many bands have been convinced to have their songs used in advertising or bad television shows. Sure Jet getting on the iPod ad made them, or should I say their managers, agents and record labels some money, but in the long run does anyone care about Jet anymore? I think not.

I don't mean to say that no bands can succeed under this model, bands have in the past, and I'm sure they will continue to do so in the future, but for the vast majority of bands being fed through the system their limited success will only serve to further propagate the exploitation of other musicians. It's time those musicians who are serious about their music, and want a career with longevity realise you are better off working with individuals or organisations who believe in your music and not just your profitability.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Kirin J Callinan

She (edit) by KirinJCallinan

Photo by Mclean Stephenson

This music makes me happy.

Something about the way he sings, matched with his inhuman mastery of guitar effects literally send shivers down my spine, and while I understand how some people might not get the music, perhaps finding it too odd for their liking, his debut single She, in my mind, is one of the most important Australian release in a long time, and one of the most thrilling songs I have heard this year.

Too often artists seem intent on referencing old artists or appropriating genres from the past, but with Kirin there is this sense of freshness and danger in what he's doing. Not to say the music is without influence, but it somehow it dodges even the most obvious of comparisons. What he does he makes his own in a way that shows a surprising maturity for such a young artists' first release.

There isn't a shred of compromise in his music. This unrestrained sense of experimentation underlies it, Kirin standing bare before the audience, his own creativity the only thing standing between him and the audience rather than having built up a wall of hip touchstones of familiarity to shield himself and appeal to hsi audience. While there are other artists who achieve a similar sense of indivuality, it's the obvious attention to detail and an intense level of scrutiny applied to his songs that set him apart from other artists who seem so intent on being different they lose the sense of craft in what they're doing. Kirin has standards of songwriting that he is clearly dedicated to, and the result is that the music, while having a freewheeling feel of discovery and innovation, still sounds cohesive and mature. Nowhere do you feel like you're being led through hallways of improvised sonic indulgence, everything has a purpose and everything is in it's right place.

While his MySpace showcases other earlier and skeletal works, mostly recorded at his home, She is very much his coming out. With every sound on the single being made with his guitar, as well as a few little splashes of drum machines and live drums here and there, the song takes the convention of a singer/songwriter playing with nothing but a guitar into a strange new world. With his highly musical and melodic use of guitar effects, he really shows how they can be used as instruments unto themselves, yet he doesn't allow them to overpower the music and turn it into art noise, the songs all coming back to his powerful vocals, walls of noise giving way to sparse and open arrangements leaving ample space for his voice to shine.

It's just such a joy to see an artist with ethics, and to whom such ethics mean more than commercial success. When too many artists seem pre-occupied with playing up to the expectations of their increasingly fickle audiences, Kirin, who played guitar in Mercy Arms and plays with Jack Ladder, refuses to conform to the what those fans from either project would expect him to sound like. While you might call him stupid or stubborn for not exploiting such an opportunity, of not playing the old game of get famous first and then make the art, in the end such concerns should never encroach on creativity and it's great to find an artist who doesn't let them.

There is true courage in this music, true courage and true expression, two things that are becoming very difficult to find in music today.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sick Marionette: How Corruption In The Music Media Has Destroyed Our Appreciation Of Music

It's pretty apparent to most people with even a vague understanding of the music media in this country that it is all run by commercial interest, using an iron fist of advertising money to enforce a policy of silence when it comes to real criticism.

Having worked in almost every facet of the music media, I couldn't tell you how many times my articles have been edited and rejigged to cast a more favourable light on a band because their label is threatening to pull ad spend. I also couldn't tell you how often I have written glowing articles of rubbish bands purely because in this industry it's hard to get ahead and have a well formed sense of ethics. Principles and poverty pretty much go hand in hand.

Again this is probably unsurprising to you. It's plainly obvious that most of the content in Drum Media or on FasterLouder is heavily motivated by keeping the labels, venues or promoter's happy. The Brag pretty much won't give you a second glance as a band unless you can afford to buy ads, and sites like Music Feeds or Throwshapes can only exist due to patronage from places like World Bar in exchange for blindly positive editorial.

From a business perspective this makes lots of sense. How can a publication or website afford to bite the hand that feeds? I agree. From my experience in the industry I know the editors of these sites would much rather work with creative and critical freedom to cover what they want how they wanted, but the commercial concerns get in the way of the journalism. the reason for this is the massive conflict of interest inherent in a music publication getting most of it's revenue from record labels or promotions companies and venues buying ads. I mean you don't see the liberal party sponsoring The Australian do you? At least not openly.

It gets worse though. When it comes to the really big acts, the one's where there is a lot at stake in getting the media coverage on message and in line, the record labels will actually conduct interviews themselves, paying an in-house writer over 10 times what the publication would pay a writer to write a glowing article that is then printed verbatim.

This is the music media equivalent of Fox News.

If any outlet raises an eyebrow at this the touring company or record label will then pull thousands of dollars of advertising, leaving the publication crippled and infirm. In my time in the industry I have seen Sony pull almost 200,000 dollars of ads, just because a certain publication didn't include some of their artists in an end of year best off list. They didn't even say anything negative, they just didn't bend over the barrel fast enough.

The real question is, why does the music media let it happen. Surely with the amount of readers these publications and sites reach they could find advertisers such as alcohol companies and clothing brands who would present no conflict of interest, whose ample pockets could keep them afloat while affording them the freedom to actually say something? The problem is that with this lack of opinion, this lack of principles, most people have lost interest in such media, and now their livelihood depends on suckling at the industry's diseased teet because it's the only industry out of touch enough with the public to patronise them.

With strength of principles comes faith and loyalty from readers, and no where does this now exist other than sites like Polaroids Of Androids, which are free from any advertising, existing purely out love for music. It seems that to make a living by offering honest and incise criticism of music is impossible today. I hope I'm wrong. I hope that one day this blog can somehow turn a profit, that my ramblings and ranting strikes enough of a chord to earn some remuneration, but I sincerely doubt it. For every blog out there, like this one, Polaroids of Androids, or The Au Review, for every blog that attempts to deal with music on as honest and critical a level as is possible (a goal I often fail to reach), there are hundreds of others trading in fashion and trends. With the death of the music media we have seen the birth of an even more menacing creature; fan critics. Uneducated and fashion obsessed teens with nothing better to do than rant on about how amazing Animal Collective's new b-side is or to discuss how cool Tame Impala's clothes are. Regardless of how sad this is though, it is somewhat fitting as it truly reflects the way most people appreciate music today.

It's very difficult these days to find a review that actually engages with the craft of the music, instead they all trade in hamfisted and whimsical description, myself included more often than not.

Where with literary and film criticism, critics understand the craft of the art-form, considering factors such as structure, plot, and character development to piece together a verdict on how well a film or book has achieved it's goals, its seems that in music we have all forgotten how to speak the language and are only left with nondescript hand signals and grunts to make ourselves understood. Even if a reviewer can discuss the music intelligently, the readers usually lack the education to understand the commentary.

Classical music and jazz aside, as well as certain exemplars such as Radiohead or The Drones amongst others, so much of today's music ignores the artistry of music, preferring to trade on an image of being artistic. The music media's bowing to commercial interest has played a big part in this, their lack of critical rigour resulting in a generation lacking the tools to appreciate the art of music, and that's exactly what the industry wanted. They wanted to destroy people's ability to objectively judge music as good or bad, hence giving them the power to tell the public what is good through their puppets the music media, and it's the journalists who let this happen.

When studying journalism you learn about Edmund Burke's description of the news media acting as a Fourth Estate of Government, meant to act as an impartial body holding the government accountable for it's actions. This is a view that is unpopular and uncommon today even in the news media, and one that never really took hold in the music media, but it is an idea that we would do well to take up, lest we allow the commercial interests of a few companies smother the most human and evocative of human art-forms, turning it's corpse into a sick marionette that dances awkwardly to entertain the masses as the world crumbles around us.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Two Bullets: Squarepusher

It's a sad day when you're teenage idols go the way of your mid life crisis addled parents, trading in their own style for some pale imitation of what they think is young and trendy. Sadly it seems Squarepusher is the latest musician to go the way of Ed Hardy jackets and phallic sports cars as he embraces a live band/electro sound with latest project Shobaleader One.

If I'm honest though I think this has to be some sort of either piss-take, or piss-weak attempt at cashing in. Megazine (above) sounds like a poor man's Daft Punk, delivering a repetetive and cheesy fuzzed out bassline under laughable vocoded vocals.

This is a live band though, no programming or backing tracks, and part of the idea behind the project might be to show that a live band can make electro and not sound like a bunch of pathetic bullshit munchers like The Klaxxons or something, but regardless of that, the music is still an unimaginative appropriation of a genre that has long passed it's used by date.

It really does sound like it's a joke though, the vocals especially sounding like they could be taken from one of those South Park 'now you're a mayong' songs.

The single, Cryptic Motion

isn't much better, delivering a sort of spacey RnB vibe, that also sounds cheap and tawdry. None of these songs have any depth, they just sound like shallow exercises in borrowing aesthetics, with no emphasis on composition.

Having stated in an interview that "the basic premise at the outset was 'space pop' - a Utopian pop music hallucination. It's a stand against the affectation of knowing indifference in urban life and its corollary in music. I've always wanted to sabotage coolness as for me music is about laughing and crying, not about standing around smoking cigarettes," I can sort of see how the music's ended up where it is, but it's still sad to see one of the most challenging artists of modern times fielding such nonsense, instead of focusing on what he does best.

At best the music reminds me a bit of this blog, an artist's pathetic attempt to undermine what offends him.

Two Bullets, to the back of the head, and mine.