Archive for the ‘Read’ Category

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Read: M. Specktor, That Summertime Sound

September 9, 2009

that summertime sound

It’s after Labor Day, which means that the summer of 2009 is a fast-fading memory (in US and Canadian culture anyway, even if the astronomers don’t agree). But the debut novel by Matthew Specktor, That Summertime Sound, looks even farther back, to a summer in the 1980s. The narrator has just finished his freshman year of college, and is lured to Columbus, OH by the promise of sharing a town with the girl of his dreams and his musical heroes, Lords of Oblivion.

Heavily laced with references to artists from Hüsker Dü to Elvis Costello (and a disconcertingly veiled-but-transparent reference to Bauhaus), the prose and narrative of That Summertime Sound are sparse and evocative. This works well to elicit the heat and sounds of the Columbus summer but less well to draw the characters, who come across as rather thinly sketched, especially the women. Nevertheless, it’s an engaging read, especially for anyone who was a music-loving adolescent.

More information on the book, including MP3s of excerpts read by Jeremy Irons, J. Mascis, James Franco and others, can be found here. Largehearted Boy asked Matthew Specktor to create and discuss a playlist for the book – you can read it here.

Buy the book here. I also have one free copy to give away. Just e-mail or message me on Twitter before 12 noon Eastern on Monday, September 14th, and I’ll pick someone at random from the responses and have a copy of the book sent out to you (US and Canada addresses only, I’m afraid).

MP3: “The Devil In It Somewhere” – TSS excerpt read by Jeremy Irons

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Nick Hornby on MP3 blogs, and his new novel

September 7, 2009

Nick Hornby, who immortalized intimidating record stores in High Fidelity (as brilliantly conveyed by Jack Black in its on-screen translation: “Do we look like the kind of store that sells “I Just Called to Say I Love You”? Go to the mall.”) wrote a paean to the brave new world of music on the Internet in this weekend’s Guardian Observer:

But more importantly, you need never again feel as though the pop life is drifting away from you – indeed, the anonymity and user-friendliness of the MP3 blogs mean that one feels emboldened to walk into even the scariest-looking website in the full confidence that nobody will laugh at you.

He also makes an amusing (albeit slightly depressing) prediction for the future of musicians and bands. Read the full article here.

Hornby’s new novel, Juliet, Naked, about the relationship between a reclusive songwriter and the girlfriend of his biggest fan, is due out later this month. You can hear him talk about it in the video above or in person at Brookline Booksmith on Wednesday, September 30th.

I will now sell five copies of  The Three EPs by the Beta Band.

MP3: The Beta Band – Dry The Rain (live) [buy]

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Read: The Indie Rock Coloring Book

August 14, 2009

indie coloring book

Okay, maybe that should be ‘Color,’ not ‘Read,’ as we take a break from our serious-verging-on-academic commentary. Just got my copy of The Indie Rock Coloring Book, from Montreal’s Yellow Bird Project, who work with artists raise money for charity. It has beautifully whimsical illustrations by Andy J. Miller to color, and is replete with activities to amuse small children, such as “Find all the birds in Devendra‘s beard and color them yellow.” and “See what’s written in the stars by connecting them to one another!” Of course, there are jokes that are pretty much for grown-ups, such as a maze with the instructions, “Help Kevin Drew avoid the ladies, Brendan Canning miss the wall, and Feist dodge the million-dollar solo contracts so they can reunite for a new Broken Social Scene record!”

Buy a copy for the indie rock-loving child (or parent) in your life here.

MP3: Devendra Banhart – I Feel Just Like A Child (extended mix) [buy]

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Read: Goodbye 20th Century, David Browne

July 27, 2009

I learned two important things from David Browne‘s excellent biography of Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century.

The first  is exactly how much ass Kim Gordon kicks. Seriously. What an incredible trailblazer, and by all accounts, she still radiates cool. Not bad for someone who has five years on Madonna.

The second thing I learned is a little less obvious. The first half of the book is a detailed exploration of the early years of Sonic Youth, and by extension the whole 1980s New York art/music scene. It’s clear that Browne put an enormous amount of research into creating this portrait. But I thought that one of  the most striking aspects of the Sonic Youth story was the unremarked-upon juxtaposition of two threads. One is that Sonic Youth collaborated with everyone. They reached out to all the artists they knew (of whatever medium) for artwork, videos, and more, and the book is liberally salted with now-familiar names. For example, for their 1990 album Goo, has a Raymond Pettibon illustration for the cover, and official and unofficial videos were made by or with photographer Richard Kern, artist Tony Oursler, actor Sofia Coppola and director Todd Haynes. The second thread is  how, in several places, Browne comments on ‘unlikely coincidences,’ usually in the context of the band having a useful personal connection through friends or collaborators. It seems highly likely that these two threads are related. An enormous amount has changed in the music world in the three decades since Sonic Youth got their start. But in a world where all music and art is only a click away, I suspect that the importance of developing relationships by contributing to your community has, if anything, only increased.

You can read some reviews of the book here and here. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in music or other creative endeavours, even if you don’t consider yourself a committed Sonic Youth fan (I’m not, and I really enjoyed the book). Goodbye 20th Century is at Amazon, and I also have one free copy of the trade paperback to give away. Just e-mail or message me before 12 noon Eastern on Wednesday, July 29th if you’re interested, and I’ll pick someone at random from the responses and put the book in the post for you.

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Read: Fans, Friends and Followers

July 2, 2009

FFF cover

Fans, Friends and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age is a new e-book by Cambridge-based Scott Kirsner. He’s been writing, speaking, and connecting people involved in the uptake and spread of innovations for many years, including a column in the Boston Globe (together with its  companion blog), and he also writes regularly on music and technology for Variety.

Fans, Friends and Followers focuses on creators and artists that are thriving in the age of digital distribution, and what can be learned from them. While there are framing chapters which pull out some of the important themes, the heart of the book is a series of creator interviews, which are fascinating reads, showcasing as they do the wide variety of stories, approaches and goals of the artists. These case studies span a wide range of fields, including documentary filmmaker Curt Ellis, comedian and writer Eugene Mirman, and zed equals zee fave Jonathan Coulton.

Scott Kirsner was kind enough to answer some questions about the book for zed equals zee:

So, one of the themes that I took from the book is the ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach – that there is a diversity of ways to use the Internet to share your creative efforts. Anything that you think is an absolute necessity? Anything that you would recommend against?

One thing that’s a necessity: carving out the time and the energy to spend cultivating your fan base, and communicating with fans. There should definitely be a dedicated person in any band who’s responsible for audience-building (that’s a term I like better than “marketing”), or maybe someone you know who isn’t in the band but really understands the Web and social media well. I think in the 20th century, your label took care of all that stuff. In the 21st century, it’s your responsibility. One thing I recommend against is building a super-fancy, expensive, Flash-heavy Web site that no one can update except for the original designer. I can’t tell you how many bands do that — and the result is that fans visit your Web site once or twice, but never come back because it never changes. (And people assume that because your last gig listed is in 2007 that you must have broken up!) Even if you have a bare-bones MySpace page or blog, it’s better to have something you can continually add content to than something better-looking that stays static.

Another of the themes is what I call ‘hookers and taxicabs, not limos and supermodels,‘ after the scene in the movie Hard Core Logo – that the age of the gigantic arena-filling star may be over. What do you think the biggest a native-to-the-Internet artist can get? Do you think that the definition of success has changed, and if so, how?

I do think we’ll eventually see Internet-driven artists playing arenas and stadiums. Today, there are lots who are playing pretty big clubs or opening in bigger venues. To me, the definition of success is making a living without having to work a day job, and more importantly, making the kind of music you want to make — contributing something unique to the world — rather than compromising your vision. All of the artists I interview in Fans, Friends & Followers are doing that. Few are jillionaires (yet), but most have more creative freedom than artists who are signed to labels, which is really important.

On a related note…while I’m happy about seeing entertainment dollars go to more artists, do you think that the pie can be sliced too thin? Do you think it’s harder or easier for an individual artist to make a living?

I think it’s getting easier for individual artists to make a living, and perhaps harder for artists to wind up on the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people. But to me, there’s a cultural and societal benefit to having more people (rather than fewer) earning a living making music or movies, writing books, or engaging in any kind of artistic endeavor.  [debcha's note: Sing it, brother!]

What was the most unlikely or counterintuitive story in your book or from your research?

One of the bands I use as a case study is OK Go. I love the fact that their homemade videos for “Here It Goes Again” (featuring them dancing on treadmills) and “A Million Ways” (featuring them dancing in someone’s backyard) have probably been seen by more people on YouTube than any videos their label made for them. And those videos basically had no budget at all — just the cost of a videotape. Damian Kulash, OK Go’s lead singer, told me that their online success really has built their reputation globally much more than anything their label has done. When they went to Taiwan, a country where their record hadn’t been released, they were headliners. In Korea, where they opened for the Chemical Brothers, thousands of people knew the words to all of their songs. What made the videos successful, Kulash says in the book, were that “they didn’t bear the stamps of this kind of top-down marketing push. They were very clearly homemade.” (Though eventually they were shown on MTV.)

There are a number of visual artists interviewed in Fans, Friends and Followers. Unlike music and video, which are considered to be low culture, success in art has been more about critical approbation (inclusion in curated shows or collections) rather than about popular appeal. Do you think that the art world is changing in response to the rise of the Internet? If so, how?

I think there are two groups of artists today (and maybe there have always been.) Those who want acceptance by the art establishment probably are finding that the Internet doesn’t really help them much. But those who want to make a living — whether you are a fine artist, graphic designer, cartoonist, or illustrator — can be hugely helped by understanding digital tools and strategies. I do believe the Web will help launch the next Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat, and I think the art establishment is going to have to pay attention to that.

Any final thoughts?

I think there’s a pendulum shift happening that everyone has to acknowledge, whether you’re a writer or indie filmmaker or musician. In the old world, you could spend 90 percent of your time on your creative work, and just 10 percent promoting it. In the new world, I think the split is going to be more like 70/30, or even 60/40. Rather than gritting your teeth or complaining about the time it takes to cultivate a fan base, I think the best approach is to figure out how to make the marketing and promotion part of your art — don’t feel like you’re selling out somehow — and enjoy it. Artists like Andy Warhol and Frank Zappa and David Bowie and Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway were (and are) all great self-promoters, too.

Check out a 35-page preview of Fans, Friends and Followers here, or buy the full book here. Also, check out (or contribute to) this wiki, which collects all the online tools listed in the book and more.

MP3: OK Go – Letterbox (They Might Be Giants cover) [buy]

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Pansy Division’s multimedia extravaganza

April 14, 2009

pansy-division

Seminal* queer pop-punk band Pansy Division is back with a vengeance, debuting a new album, a film, and a memoir.

The album is That’s So Gay, out on Alternative Tentacles. Pansy Division sounds tight, which I imagine is a consequence of their stable lineup, but musically and lyrically, it’s not a departure from their previous work, which is just fine – they’ve never been a band that had pretensions to being anything else. Songs like “Pat Me on the Ass” and “20 Years of Cock” combine catchy songwriting with Pansy Division’s trademark sexual exuberance and fit comfortably with other PD faves. The one exception is “Average Men,” with guest Jello Biafra – its sound is harder (and its humour  considerably more biting) than the rest of the tracks.

The film is Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band, a documentary that started life as a graduation requirement for bassist Chris Freeman’s film degree.  It’s currently out on DVD and is being screened around the country. You can find out more about it or order a copy here.

The memoir is Jon Ginoli’s Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division, a history of Pansy Division from its inception in 1990 to the present. It draws heavily from tour diaries, including the one kept by Ginoli in 1994 when they were tapped by Green Day to open for their arena tour. The memoir is an inside look at how an indie band deals with the challenges of life on the road, dealing with the record label, trying to get albums out, and trying to keep a drummer (Pansy Division could envy Spinal Tap; over the course of the lifetime of the band, they’ve gone through a dozen drummers, albeit none fatally). Of course, they faced the added challenge of dealing with marginalization and homophobia, on the road and off; Ginoli speaks matter-of-factly of women in the audience forming a human chain to protect the band while they were loading out their gear. Ginoli’s writing voice is frank and sincere, and it’s an engaging read.

Pansy Division has a special place in the heart of z=z, since their last Cambridge show featured in its very first post. And that show seems to have a warm place in Ginoli’s heart too, as he writes, “…we played the larger downstairs room of the Middle East…Combine great stage sound with a slew of crazed, screaming fans up front who knew all the words, and the result was probably the best show of the tour.”

Ginoli’s currently on a book tour, promoting the book and the documentary, with readings at a Boston Barnes and Noble on Tuesday, April 14th and  at the Brookline Booksmith on Wednesday, April 15th, and a screening of  the documentary at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, also on the 15th. As well, a concert tour is lined up for June and July. Dates and details for the readings, screenings and concerts can all be found here.

MP3: Pansy Division – Average Men [buy]

*I couldn’t resist. Sorry.

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Read: The Pitchfork 500

January 22, 2009

pitchfork-500

The Pitchfork 500, subtitled “Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present,” is an excellent example of the upstart music criticism website using its powers for good, not for evil. Covering the period from 1977 to 2006 (with a few late-breaking tracks from 2007 snuck in, including z=z faveAll My Friends“), the book presents capsule reviews of each of the chosen songs. As lists go, five hundred is quite large enough to include many songs that you’d agree with, and as well as bunch that you wouldn’t, and some of the choices were surprising but inspired – for instance, Duran Duran get Rio‘s tense and disturbing closer “The Chauffeur” and not either of the megahits, “Hungry Like the Wolf” or the title track.) Unsurprisingly, the list is a bit American-centric (the omission that jumped out at me was the band Squeeze, who were much bigger in the UK and Canada than in the US). But the beauty of the format is that the writers get to enthuse about the songs they love – even a casual perusal of the book rewards with a new appreciation of songs that you’re familiar with, and an urge to go and search out the unfamiliar ones. Being Pitchfork, they couldn’t quite leave out the snark entirely, and the book is peppered with sidebars focusing on specific genres, ranging from grime to ‘post-Fugazi emo,’ to ‘yacht rock’ (yes, songs about sailing).

The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present: website amazon

MP3: Buzzcocks – Ever Fallen in Love? (1977)

MP3: Animal Collective – Grass (2006)

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Read: The Indie Band Survival Guide

October 23, 2008

I’m not a musician. I’m just a fan. So I’m kind of amazed (and grateful) that the bands I like are willing to put up with smelly vans, sleeping in a different place every night, and what I’m sure is pretty marginal pay to keep making new music and coming out to entertain me. I’m acutely aware that it wouldn’t take much for most of them to pack it in, go get a day job, and maybe play gigs with their friends in their hometowns occasionally. I therefore have a strong vested interest in seeing the bands I like succeed, at least to the point where putting on the green apron doesn’t seem like a better alternative. So listen up, new bands – please go read Beatnik Turtle’s Indie Music Survival Guide.

Beatnik Turtle, themselves an independent band, have collated everything they’ve learned into this guide, which is available either as a PDF [PDF link, duh] or as a paperback – something you can read during those quiet stretches in the tour van. The guide is a pretty enlightening read even – maybe especially – for a non-musician. It starts by busting the myth of ‘getting a record contract, getting heard on the radio, and being a rock star,’ and then goes into the tools a band can use for a DIY approach. Topics include promotion, putting on shows, filesharing, the basics of recording an album, and a nice primer on copyright and alternatives (like Creative Commons licenses) for independent bands. Speaking of which, for their own music and other work, they decided to improve on Creative Commons licensing by starting with Sampling, Attribution and Noncommercial and adding a proviso: “Don’t make it suck.”

Read more about the Indie Music Survival Guide and join the online forums here, or purchase a dead-tree edition here.

MP3 link: Beatnik Turtle – Mason Rocket (Spy Extraordinaire) [more song info]

[via Boing Boing]

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Read: Empire of Dirt

May 29, 2008

Wendy Fonarow is an anthropologist and lecturer at UCLA, and in Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music, she turns her professional eye to the indie music subculture. It’s a scholarly work, and the nature and tone of the writing reflects that, but it’s nevertheless surprisingly readable. If ‘culture’ can be loosely defined as ‘all the things that you do that you don’t think about doing,’ part of the fun in reading this book is developing a self-awareness of indie culture by viewing it through the eyes of an ethnographer. For example, she talks about the central role of live music, and describes the existence of distinct ‘zones’, with zone 1 closest to the stage, zone 2 the intermediate region, and zone 3 near the back of the venue:

For the majority of zone one (the exception being the very front rows) participatory spectatorship is embodied in demonstrative physicality coordinated with the music and in following the proper etiquette associated with being near the stage. For zone two, participatory spectatorship is embodied in mental concentration on the music and a prolonged visual focus on performers onstage.

She goes on to describe the ‘proper etiquette’ for both regions (as well as for zone 3, the music industry zone), the demographics of the different zones, and how participants choose zones and transition between them.

Fonarow also makes an excellent case for using Puritanism as an analogy to understand indie culture: she contrasts indie music against the major labels (ie Catholicism), describes its ethos of simplicity, and compares their common emphasis on an unmediated experience of the ‘divine’:

I see a lot of the religious narrative of Puritanism in the indie music scene; the idea that, to have the pure divine experience, it has to be direct and unmediated. So the smaller and more intimate a show is, the ‘truer’ fans believe their experience was, compared to someone who saw them later on in a bigger venue. That’s why so many people claim to have seen the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club.

While Fonarow’s fieldwork was mostly in the British scene in 1993 and 1994, many of her observations still apply today, and to indie rock culture on both sides of the Atlantic. One exception is that she describes indie rock as defining itself in opposition to dance music (‘technophilia/technophobia; electronic drums/electric guitar; synthetic/organic; faceless/charismatic artists’). But this was before artists like Dan Deacon and Girl Talk, and the many other crossovers between indie and dance/electronica.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably immersed in indie rock culture to a greater or lesser extent. Empire of Dirt is a fascinating guide to thinking more deeply about what this culture is and what it means.

Popmatters review

More excerpts

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