Thursday, January 27, 2011

Happy Birthday, Legs McNeil

Originally published by PopMatters on January 27, 2011

Beyond the punk hype, the seminal Please Kill Me and other distinctly unique published works. Beyond the erudite caricature and inside track on the New York City underbelly, Legs McNeil is a friend.

Today is Legs MeNeil’s… well, it doesn’t really matter how old Legs is, because he’s perpetually however you want to think of him. In his character makeup is still the teenage hoodlum who co-founded Punk; the inquisitive rapscallion who turned a love of true crime and titillation into The Other Hollywood, an exploration of the two. He’s an historian, an elder statesman, a chain-smoking television celebrity and an absolute fucking riot. Today is Legs McNeil’s birthday, and if you’ve ever spent even one minute of your life flipping through one of his book at random and marveling at what you’ve found, you’ll raise a glass of whatever your particular fancy is and send him your kindest, filthiest regards. And go pick up a copy of Please Kill Me, and maybe a t-shirt or something from his website, You’ll feel much cooler if you do.
I met Legs through my father, and he quickly became something of a mentor to me. I was in college at the time, playing drums in a band and generally living my life like a cliché. Legs came to a gig in the East Village, took me aside and pointed out where various sordid acts of punk rock depravity once happened in the dark corners of the venue. My hero.

Legs gave me my first paid writing gig in the early ‘90s, reviewing records for the short-lived Nerve Magazine. He was more than a mentor, letting me crash in his room at the Gershwin Hotel the night of the Please Kill Me book release party, making sure our cups of Earl Grey tea were always filled no matter where we happened to run into one another.

I spent a year living in Legs’ guest room in North Hollywood maybe a decade ago, transcribing interviews with porn stars, eating a lot of Indian and Mexican food, watching Simpsons re-runs and hitting yard sales. Going into any greater detail than that would almost certainly be a violation of omertà, that I never reveal what I might have seen or heard. He said it with a laugh, and I laughed too. But I also love and respect Legs McNeil enough that unless he specifically asked me to dish dirt, I’m keeping it clean and lean.

We drifted apart for a while, at least partly because I was young and impetuous and felt the need to uproot myself at the drop of a hat. We’ve reconnected, though, and while we’re no longer cracking jokes in a tiny room while he guns down German infantrymen in a World War II video game like we used to, he’s still ever present in my life. I learned a lot from seeing Legs’ work ethic, his attention to detail and his insistence one getting the facts straight. It’s a philosophy I’ve adopted in my own life as a writer, and I think of him even when we haven’t actually caught up maybe for months.

Happy Birthday, Legs.

Trish Keenan (Broadcast), R.I.P.

Originally published by PopMatters on January 14, 2011

The news yesterday that neo-psychedelic chanteuse Trish Keenan, founding member of Broadcast, had been hospitalized for pneumonia was troubling, but it might not have seemed nearly serious enough. According to a press release from Warp Records, Keenan died in the hospital on Friday morning.

It is with great sadness we announce that Trish Keenan from Broadcast passed away at 9am this morning in hospital. She died from complications with pneumonia after battling the illness for two weeks in intensive care.

Our thoughts go out to James, Martin, her friends and her family and we request that the public respect their wishes for privacy at this time.
This is an untimely tragic loss and we will miss Trish dearly—a unique voice, an extraordinary talent and a beautiful human being. Rest in Peace. - Warp Records
For fans of Stereolab and the United States of America, Broadcast’s ascension in the late ‘90s was like a gift from outer space. Combining a spy film aesthetic, swathes of electronic drone, found sounds and the delicately glorious vocals of Keenan, the band quickly established itself as a favorite among indie nerds like myself.

Though their last album proper was released in 2005 (Tender Buttons), the band was still an active concern, releasing singles, compilations and playing live. Most recently, Broadcast collaborated with the Focus Group on a celebrated mini-album (2009’s Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age) as well as touring extensively. Broadcast performed at the Matt Groening-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Minehead, Somerset, England in May 2010 and had just returned from a tour of Australia in December.

Keenan leaves behind a legacy of deceptively complex music with Broadcast, a journey worth undertaking to find the simple beauty of her voice and the music’s inherently approachable harmonies buried under a wonderful mix of soothing psychedelia.

Coachella 2011 - The Setup

Originally published by PopMatters on January 19, 2011

Weeks of wondering, of lollygagging around the dark recesses and official enclaves of the music-lovin’ world wild web ended in a heartbeat late Tuesday night with the official for real honest to gosh Coachella 2011 lineup announcement. In a flash, all the anticipation and faith in whatever rumors best suited one’s own particular hopes and dreams began the overwhelming task of trying to immediately process actual information.

As it has been pretty much with each of the past several chapters in the Coachella annals, the immediate response generally fell into one of three areas…

- Whatever. I was going no matter what.
- Worst. Coachella. Ever.

The headliners, from Friday to Sunday: Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire, Kanye West. The Strokes are also on Sunday’s top line, so maybe they’re co-headlining. Or maybe they’ll team with Kanye in some unholy mash-up like that cruddy Converse ad Julian Casablancas got roped into a few years ago. Or maybe…

The “maybes” are few and far between now, though they certainly exist, especially with memories of Prince’s 2008 set that wasn’t even announced until weeks after the first draft of the lineup dropped. This year’s pleasegoldenvoiceletusreceivemoremoreMORE acts will probably come in the form of everyone from Daft Punk to the Rolling Stones, but truth be told, there’s a lot to be stoked about with what we’ve already got.

Yes, Kings of Leon appear to be something of a controversial choice among the discerning Coachella faithful, but there’s certainly no denying they’ve steered their careers successfully into the festival headlining domain. Arcade Fire has also followed a similar trajectory, though they’ve done so with fewer accusations of having “sold out.” As for Kanye West, like him or not (and I emphatically like him quite a lot), at the very least it’ll be worth sticking around to see if he flouts the community’s midnight noise ordinance.

The undercard is also pretty rock solid, which is also how the “Worst. Coachella. Ever.” crowd eventually finds themselves making peace with going to the festival anyway.

Some of the highlights to keep an eye on…

- Ms. Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu each released two of the finest solo debuts of the past 20 years: Who will out-enigmatic the other?

- Will Ana Matronic stick around after her set with Scissor Sisters on Saturday to perform her sweet vocals from “Safe (In the Heat of the Moment)” with Duran Duran on Sunday?

- Will Death From Above 1979 remember why they broke up in the first place and kick each other’s asses mid-set?

- Will Elbow take their relatively small font size on the poster as a challenge and leave everyone within earshot absolutely breathless?

- Will Cee Lo Green remember the words to “Fuck You”?

The waiting is over. Well, the waiting for the lineup. Now, the nearly three months of waiting for Coachella to actually happen can truly begin.

Coachella 2011 - The Preamble

Originally published by PopMatters on January 17, 2011

In preparation for my first assignment covering the Coachella Music and Arts Festival for PopMatters, I’ve done a bit of marginal research to occupy my time before learning definitively who it is I’ll be seeing when mid-April brings me and tens of thousands of my best pals to the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, California.

What I mean when I say I’ve done some research is that I’ve actually just gone to the most obsessive internet sources: Blogs, message boards, etc…

Coachella ordinarily drops its lineup some time during the second half of January, but that doesn’t stop bloggers from stirring the pot, fans from going nuts and genuine insiders, presumably, shaking their heads.
Coachella fans - at least the ones who spend a reasonable portion of their day hollering about the festival online - are a passionate sort. They take both music and the Coachella Festival incredibly seriously. And as such, they’ve been going positively apeshit over the past few weeks as anticipation builds toward the announcement of the official artist lineup.

On Thursday, that anticipation reached a fever pitch, with the official Coachella website and message board both going offline intermittently during the afternoon, perhaps exploding from the sheer volume of page reloads from the exasperated masses. For a while, the primary site simply said: “It works!”

The feeding frenzy continued elsewhere, including the blog of an unknown alleged insider who calls herself Monklish. Since late 2008, Monklish has helped fuel the fire by positing about artists who might appear at Coachella well in advance of the official lineup announcement. Where she gets her information, she won’t say. Whether she’s actually a “she” is even the subject of considerable debate. But she’s got a captive audience comprised of people who both love and loathe her in equal measures, and that’s at least good for a few bucks from Google ads.
Which brings us to now. Monklish posted an update on Wednesday called “Home Stretch” with the following artists…

Animal Collective
Arcade Fire
Atlas Sound
Beastie Boys
Best Coast
Black Dub
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears
Blonde Redhead
Bomba Estéreo
Bright Eyes
Broken Social Scene
Cage the Elephant
Cold War Kids
Crystal Castles
Cut Copy
Daft Punk
DJ Shadow
Duran Duran
Empire of the Sun
Erick Morillo and Friends
Fat Freddy’s Drop
Fleet Foxes
Foster The People
Four Tet
Free Energy
Godspeed You Black Emperor
Gogol Bordello
Green Velvet
Groove Armada
Hello Seahorse
Henry Clay People
High Contrast
How to Dress Well
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Jack Beats
Kings of Leon
Magnetic Man
Mariachi El Bronx
Marina and the Diamonds
Mary Anne Hobbs
Neil Young
Neon Indian
Nosaj Thing
PJ Harvey
Queens of the Stone Age
Rural Alberta Advantage
Sven Väth
Tame Impala
The Black Keys
The Chemical Brothers
The Delta Spirit
The Drums
The Morning Benders
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
The Strokes
The Twelves
Titus Andronicus
Tom Tom Club
Twin Shadow
Zola Jesus

Another website,, dropped a poster on January 11, though a Goldenvoice representative said they haven’t even made a lineup poster yet, so who knows?

In the comments on the Monklish blog as well as on the official Coachella forum, two acts are receiving the lion’s share of the most passionate responses. Those artists: Daft Punk and Kings of Leon.

French electronic duo Daft Punk last played Coachella in 2006, a set that has been described as “epic” on the official forum at least a billion times since. Though naysayers have frequently pointed out that as their Tron: Legacy album was merely a soundtrack, a Coachella appearance wouldn’t make much sense.

Kings of Leon, on the other hand, are apparently this year’s sign that Coachella is no longer cool. It’s an annual rite of passage that in recent years has been filled by everyone from the Killers to Jack Johnson, and if you don’t belive me all you need to do is look in the comments section under Monklish’s latest blog entry.

The following anonymous comments appeared on Thursday afternoon with 11 minutes between them…

“Kings of Leon will be great for those of us who want to leave early and not feel like we missed something.”

“The kings of leon are the worst headliner ever.

That’s obviously open to debate, though it’s clear the worst thing that could have happened to the Followill clan was to become insanely rich and successful. Few bands can survive such a blow to their cool as to have a hit record.

It’s worth noting that fake posters and other internet rumors have included everyone from the Rolling Stones to David Bowie to a Talking Heads reunion, and none of them will be true unless they are. And with the exception of a few artists here and there who let the news leak on their own, none of this will be known until Coachella makes the official announcement…or until Monklish says so…or until the local media leaks it…or until…

Wire: Red Barked Tree

Originally published by PopMatters on January 11, 2011

Perhaps we’ve been taking them for granted all this time. Maybe Wire’s first few albums were just so good that they made it impossible for us to appreciate the often terrific material they’ve released sporadically during the subsequent decades. They could have just slunk away in the dead of night, leaving us with 1977-79, and their place in history would have been safe and sound. But Wire were always, at least in part, about contrariness. They were crisp and clean and rigidly experimental in an era when punk was more than often not any of those things. And so in 2011, Wire is here to personally remind us not only that they used to be great, but that they’re still capable of great things.

If your favorite Wire music is the jagged quick-snap guitar of their classic debut album, Pink Flag, “Now Was” and the appropriately-titled “Two Minutes” should be right up your alley. Both songs depart as suddenly as they arrive, with the latter delving into drone rock territory with a terrifically twisted spoken-word vocal line. Fans of the band’s forays into contemplative dream-pop should be thrilled with “Adapt” and “Down to This,” each awash in the gentle sway of a feeling you may have long forgotten, building toward something that may never come again.

At times, Red Barked Tree doesn’t feel like it was even recorded in the 21st century, the whiff of a dog-eared copy of the Trouser Press Record Guide faint in its guitars and grooves. Even Colin Newman’s snotty yelp echoes from across the divide of decades, refusing to be softened by age or experience. But because early Wire sounds positively contemporary and necessary in the modern age, the clear line between then and now makes perfect sense. Even when you might want to be embarrassed by earnestly rendered lines like “The absolute of vodka kings” (“Bad Worn Thing”) or the clumsy f-bombs scattered throughout pockets of the entire set, the sound is so clearly Wire, it’s easy to give them a pass.

Selecting a standout track is no easy feat when there’s so much to sink one’s teeth into. “Smash” is a swirling cloud of prickly guitar noise and perfect pop melody, while album opener “Please Take” is so fraught with purpose in its delivery, you may find yourself wondering what it must be like to have all that anger and disappointment focused on you. Over 11 tracks of fantastically unapproachable guitars and vocals, of deceivingly simple rhythms and unswerving purpose, Wire sound perfectly comfortable in their own skin and sense of history on Red Barked Tree.

8 out of 10