Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Record Collection Reduced to a Mixtape

In the basement event space at WORD last night, I read a chapter from A Record Collection Reduced to a Mixtape, my work-in-progress novel about a music nerd with a busted heart. This has been a difficult week in NYC, and I wasn't sure we'd get anyone out for LOCAL ORGANIC: New Works by the Greenpoint Writers Group, a reading which was the culmination of a 12-week intensive with eight writers sharing their stuff with one another, providing feedback and becoming better for it. WORD was packed. We were grateful. Eve, my fiancee, shot video of my reading, and because the sound wasn't terribly good, I figured I ought to just put the chapter I read here in case anyone wanted to try and read along. 
A Record Collection Reduced to a Mixtape tells the story of Sam, a playwright recently back in New York and staying with his parents after a tough breakup. Some of the novel goes as far back as his college days at UCLA and the time he spent living in Los Angeles in the years which followed. In this chapter, he's back in New York, trying to get over Renee, and is considering looking for love on the internet.  

The Bees – “I Really Need Love”
Vivian Girls – “Second Date”
Peter Doherty – “New Love Grows on Trees”
I filled out an online dating profile. I don’t know why I did it, because I guess I did alright when I actively tried to hit on women, and even when I've had a long dry spell I didn't much care. But my friend Diego said it was working for him, and why shouldn't I get in on the action?

I checked it out, mostly so I could find something wrong with it so I wouldn't have to create a profile. But it turns out Diego was right. My objections were primarily based on the television commercials where the blandest motherfuckers on the planet seemed perfectly happy now that a website found their bland ideal. I've come across countless bland chicks already, and I’m sure plenty of women have found me to be pretty vanilla too. So I figured, why pay for disappointment and awkwardness when I get that shit for free?

“Dude, this is different,” Diego said. “It’s like it was made by a bunch of indie-rock bloggers. It’s called OK Cupid.”

Immediately my hackles were raised. To say I have a complicated relationship with Radiohead would be a vast understatement. It would also be wildly inaccurate, of course, because there is no relationship. The crown princes of dour indie obviously don’t know me at all, and as I’m unlikely to visit any sullen hyperbaric chambers masquerading as beep-boop-blip recording studios, it’ll probably remain that way. On my end, I sometimes enjoy the music of Radiohead, but there’s always the din of fawning praise drowning everything else out. So what then to think of a dating website named after OK Computer, Radiohead’s 1997 alt-prog-wank opus?

“That sounds fucking terrible, man. Seriously.”

“It’s free.”

So I gave it a shot. And much to my great disappointment, I actually kind of liked the feel of it. I looked around, and there were plenty of cool women with cool jobs and cool haircuts and cool ideas. I set up a profile and began browsing.

New York, NY

“Music is the weapon of the future” – Fela Kuti
I am: Funk, punk and crunk

(left blank)

Identifying the best orange in even the largest of grocery store bins.

My shoes and my awesomeness

Books - Catcher in the Rye, Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung, Up in the Old Hotel, Please Kill Me, Miss Lonelyhearts/Day of the Locust, London Fields, Money, The Adventures of Augie March
Movies - Annie Hall, Do the Right Thing, On the Waterfront, The Third Man, My Life as a Dog, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Touch of Evil, The World of Henry Orient, Dig!, A Hard Days Night, Double Indemnity, L.A. Confidential, Chinatown, Arsenic and Old Lace, Star Wars, Philadelphia Story, Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Rushmore, Manhattan, Strangers on a Train, West Side Story, A Shot in the Dark
Music – Six songs completely at random on my iPod…
Ty Segall – “Fuzzy Cat”
Black Moth Super Rainbow – “Zodiac Girls”
Tronics – “TV on in Bed”
Belle & Sebastian – “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career”
Field Music - “A House is Not a Home”
Jurassic 5 – “Quality Control”
Food – I enjoy food, especially Indian, Japanese…Really, anything you like, I’m probably gonna like.

I’m taking the question to mean material things rather than ideas or emotions. Mostly I just want to be incredibly shallow.
iPod (though it is falling apart)
iPad (though it is falling apart)
iPhone (it won’t fall apart until my AppleCare expires)
Signed vinyl copies of Plastic Beach; Blank Generation; 3 Feet High and Rising; and Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space
Dogeared copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
Uniball Micro pens and Moleskine notebooks (because it looks cooler than entering shit into my iPhone)

(left blank)

(left blank)

(left blank)






(left blank)

Agnosticism, but not too serious about it

Gemini, but it doesn't matter

Graduated from college/university


Rather not say

Doesn’t want children

Likes dogs and dislikes cats

English, fluently
French, poorly

Girls who like guys
Ages 21-35
Near me
New friends, Short-term dating, Long-term dating, Long-distance penpals, Activity partners, Casual sex

(left blank)

I loaded up a few choice pictures – the one where I’m coveting the “butcher” cover of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today behind the counter at the Amoeba Records on Haight in San Francisco; a black & white shot of me standing in front of the Brill Building in Manhattan; a pretentious shot of me standing in front of a far more erudite friend’s bookshelves while wearing my God Bless Brian Wilson t-shirt – and put the fucker live.

It’s a dating profile, so naturally I fudged it just a bit. I wasn't actually in New York City, but I was certainly willing to jump on a commuter train if it meant I might meet someone. Besides, I didn't want my face to show up if anyone did a search of the area where my parents lived.

I wasn’t “fit” either, though I figured I might actually get there now that I was home with fuck all to do with my time.

I spent the first hour or so answering questions about politics and how I’d handle myself in bullshit situations, like if I turned a corner and found a stack of hundred dollar bills, what would I do? I’d fucking take it, but even though I knew full well anyone would do the same, there were four options, and I figured I’d take the sensitive route and pretend I’d donate it to charity instead of blowing it all on vinyl.

I trolled profiles for the next 30 minutes, ranking women based on their looks and anything else I was able to scan in roughly three seconds, and I felt a little shitty and shallow and I kept on doing it anyway. I saw red flags everywhere, and I saw Renee everywhere too, or rather the absence of her, because no one on there was Renee.

I was fumbling around, having a little fun but not really allowing myself to take the next step and say hello to anyone. And that’s when I realized I was already under the microscope. It’s not like I thought I wouldn't be looked up and down and judged like everyone else, but maybe I didn't think it would happen so soon. I found the “visitors” link in a drop-down menu on my homepage and saw every woman who’d looked at my profile. And even though I’d only been signed up for maybe two hours, there were like 40 of them.

By the next morning, I had seven messages in my profile inbox. Two informed me that women I’d ranked either 4 or 5 stars had done the same for me. One was from someone called “ToxyRoxy” who’d added me to her favorites list, making me instantly suspicious of her motives, even though she claimed to be bisexual, which I thought was pretty great. Another three were a mixed bag, and after reading their messages and profiles I determined them to be somewhere between irritating and borderline psychotic. Using this random sampling, I’ll leave you to determine which end of the spectrum I put them on.

Slybootz11222: OMG you like Tame Impala too no way I love them are you going to show at MHOW? Wanna buy me a drink? LOL

GlitterFreezes: …I have three cats and they’re named Mittens, Mittens II and Mittens IV. Please don’t ask about Mittens III when we meet…

BarrenToTheBone: …so I got out of the car, made sure no one was around, and dropped the bag of dogshit into his mailbox…

The seventh message was from a woman called SignedBC, a play on a song by Love, the seminal ‘60s Los Angeles group which only gained fame years after half of them were dead or in prison and the other half in and out of rehab: Street cred forever guaranteed.

Our conversation began with promise…

SignedBC: …My apartment is small, though it’s my own fault for being a completest record collector. I’ve got an entire shelf dedicated to post-Big Band, pre-fusion jazz, for crying out loud…

Stereoblab: …I’ve got more Impulse-era Coltrane than almost anyone except the Beatles…

SignedBC: As well you might.

Predictably, we quickly moved to more intimate realms…

SignedBC: Top Five Best Make-Out Albums Not Featuring Marvin Gaye…Go!

Stereoblab: What song was playing when you lost your virginity?

SignedBC: Have you ever gotten off at a live show? Which band was it?

There was something pure and beautiful and appealingly weird about our conversation, and we weren't in a hurry to spoil it by moving it into a different medium. Logging in to OK Cupid, I’d see that I had messages, and if it was from someone other than her I’d ignore it completely, and if it was from her I’d read it at least half a dozen times, trying to convince myself she was for real. We didn't talk on the telephone, and even though it would have been easy enough to arrange, we didn't try to meet in person. I didn't even know her name.

SignedBC: What are your Desert Island Discs?

Stereoblab: Have you ever worn a concert t-shirt so long it fell apart?

SignedBC: I know he’s pushing 70 and collects knives, but I totally have the dirtiest fantasies about Keith Richards.

…but before long, cracks began to show…

SignedBC: I think Coldplay are pretty underrated.

Signed BC: Black people just smell different than the rest of us.

Stereoblab: …

SignedBC: I have three cats and they’re named…

For the next week messages continued to trickle in, and I became more discouraged every time I clicked one open. They weren't all crazy or boring or lousy with cats. Some of them were sexy, smart and sarcastic. They were just the wrong sexy, smart and sarcastic. I didn't even know what I was looking for, but that didn't stop me from trying, either. I’d scroll through the recent visitors to my profile, click over to check them out and enjoy the voyeuristic thrill of knowing they would know that I’d checked them out. But it didn't last. None of it lasted. I was chum in the water, and I didn't know what to think of that. I thought about deleting my profile before it got out of hand, and that’s when I heard from Ingrid.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Today's Supernatural: PopMatters Interviews Animal Collective

Originally published by PopMatters on September 6, 2012

They’re supposed to be difficult, as impenetrable and stubborn as the music they’ve created together or separately or whatever. It turns out not to be true, of course; the four guys who make up Animal Collective are normal dudes. Immensely talented, urbane and intellectually complicated dudes, but still. Panda Bear recognizes the logo of the former Las Vegas minor league baseball team on the cap I’m wearing because he’s seen it in a video game.

In the tiny living room of a sweltering second-floor walkup on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, three members of Animal Collective – Noah Lennox, Brian Weitz and Josh Dibb - sit elbow to elbow on a small sofa, with the fourth – Dave Portner - on the other side of a coffee table perched on a chair. It’s early summer and they’re flipping through stacks of photographs. The intimacy of the room, the attention to detail, it all matters when talking about the Animal Collective story in 2012. But more on that in a minute.
Like a psilocybin Super Friends, the members of Animal Collective are known the world over by aliases: Panda Bear (Lennox), Geologist (Weitz), Deakin (Dibb) and Avey Tare (Portner), though since they referred to one another by their real names, that’s how it’s going to work here, too. But before I do, I just want to say how disappointed I was to find that there’s no Animal Collective name generator on the internet. Remember how much momentary fun it was to get your Wu-Tang name? Donald Glover certainly does. So get on that, random hipsters.

Animal Collective have long been critical touchstones, a recording history stretching back to the turn of the 21st century with a series of densely assembled releases with sounds buried deep in the mix and sudden harmonies and, fuck, is that some lost Beach Boys track I’m listening to? Such is how many music journalists, perhaps robbed of the ability to think straight after deep contemplation of songs like “Peacebone” or “Grass,” have described Animal Collective, and maybe there’s a kernel of truth there: The perceived obsessive attention to minute detail; deceptively simple melodies and rushes of sheer vocal beauty; a sandbox in the living room? But to constantly reference the Beach Boys is missing the point, and it’s also lazy, and while Animal Collective seems wary of tags, there are far worse things to be compared to.

“It has to be flattering,” said Weitz.

“Definitely not irritating,” added Lennox. 

“With the Beach Boys thing, from Sung Tongs on it’s been a band we’ve been associated with or a reference point,” said Portner. “And I think when it got down to making Strawberry Jam and people said, ‘Oh, it’s a Beach Boys thing again,’ and we were like, did you even listen to the record? I don’t get that in that at all. When it becomes this lightning rod to make people understand something, we’re not annoyed but we just don’t get it.”

There are degrees of perplexity with the reference, too.

“You can tell when it’s a product of lazy journalism,” said Weitz. “You can usually tell from the publication, like if we’re not the kind of band they usually cover, it’s like, ‘Did you really listen or did you get that from a Google search?’”

In early 2009, Animal Collective released Merriweather Post Pavilion, the album which made them as close to household names as they’re likely to ever get. The group’s most electronic-and-sample-based album, it was for many also its most approachable. Singles like “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes” were all over college and internet radio stations, comparatively sparse and unabashedly lovely. The album was perhaps the year’s most critically-acclaimed, living up to the advance hype and somehow managing to transcend the buzz. It gained the group legions of new fans, which was something of a blessing and, if not a curse exactly then perhaps a new puzzle to solve.

“Dave and I were just in France doing some DJing, and the guy who promotes our French shows came out,” said Weitz. “And he was like, ‘Your last show in Paris, a reviewer was talking about how you’d only played two songs from your first album,’ and we were like, what do you mean our first album, and they meant Merriweather.”

The mistake almost feels unforgivable in the digital age, where a group’s entire history is merely a keystroke away. With Animal Collective, there’s not just a long history of complex musical exploration on record, but also on the stage. And as any fan of any band knows, some people want to hear their favorite songs exactly as they know them from the record. To paraphrase an apocryphal Beach Boys tale, when Brian Wilson abandoned the band’s girls/surf/cars themes in favor of comparably deeper intellectualism when creating Pet Sounds, the famously cantankerous Mike Love reportedly said, “Don’t fuck with the formula.” And if there’s one thing Animal Collective enjoys, it’s fucking with the formula.

“One comment I heard, or was talked about after we actually played at Merriweather Post Pavilion(in 2011), is even though it was three years after the record came out was how can these guys tour a record and not play and of the songs off that record” said Portner. “We weren’t touring the record, and for us it’s interesting to know that there are people that haven’t clued into that fact, because I feel like it’s pretty widely known.”

It is widely known, so much so that the group received a curious warning prior to playing the Maryland venue which bore the album’s name.

“Even the promoter sent our booking agent a semi-threatening e-mail saying he heard we weren’t going to play a lot of songs from Merriweather, and we’d better behave like professionals and play the songs people were coming to hear as we recorded it,” Lennox said.

And, let’s face it, that’s not something anyone should expect from Animal Collective. A festival set at Coachella last year was one such example, with countless people taking to the Twittersphere to call the set a disaster and just as many calling it a triumph.

“It’s intense to play Coachella or a venue that large where there’s people for all different reasons coming to see you,” said Portner. “And for us, we feel like we’re throwing enough old stuff in there people will respond to, but we rework songs to the point where people don’t even recognize them. It can be scary, especially at this point where, in environments like Coachella where you’re playing for 30,000 people or even at Merriweather where we played for 8,000 people.”

“It’s highlighted at festivals, because presumably you have a lot of people who are like, ‘I’ve heard of that band, let’s see what they’re about,’ and you don’t have that crush of people who say, ‘I know this song, it’s my jam,’” said Lennox. “You have tons of people who say, ‘I’ve never heard this before.’”

“There are some fans who are like that, who would only be satisfied if you played ‘My Girls,’ ‘Fireworks,’ ‘Banshee Beat,’ ‘Brother Sport,’ ‘Summertime Clothes,’” said Dibb. “If they heard that set, they’d be psyched, and otherwise they’re like, ‘What the fuck?’”

It’s enough to make even the famously adventurous Animal Collective admit to the odd bouts of second-guessing themselves, but only a bit.

“It affects me more in club shows,” said Portner. “To me, these are people who are Animal Collective fans, and to see someone with that bored kind of, ‘What are they doing?’ kind of look. That’s the most disheartening thing. The thing is, you can’t be like…if you’re going to get into a wormhole where you start thinking about that stuff it’s going to be no fun. And there are definitely some nights where I’m like, ‘Why do I do this anymore?’ Usually more because I didn’t think we sounded that good. But it’s too easy to get wrapped up into thinking, ‘Is this person enjoying it?’ ‘Is that person enjoying it?’ And the reality of it is, like at Coachella, there’s going to be 30 percent people there that hate it. Not everybody is there to see Animal Collective, and it’s cool to think we can turn people on to something different and we can have this new way of doing it, but there are also people there that just want the typical festival band who just goes out there and plays the hits. But I think that’s why festivals are cool, too. They’re supposed to offer this wide array of music, and it’s exciting as a fan of music.”

Dibb sees a clear connection between Animal Collective live and Animal Collective on record.

“I think that also goes in line with the way we release records, and it’s ultimately what’s exciting to me,” he said. “Releasing a record like Merriweather and then releasing a record like this (Centipede Hz, the group’s new album out this week). Or going back to Feels or Sung Tongs. They’re all different. There are always going to be people just into one of those sounds and that’s all they’re going to want to hear, and then there are people who are like, ‘I’m really into all these different angles of what you guys can be,’ and I feel the same about the live experience. I want it to be unifying so all the people there can connect to it, but there’s also a part of me that wants the music to be challenging, in the same way that I expect people coming into this who were introduced to us through Merriweather and it’s the only experience they had: You’re either going to be up for this being something new, or you’re going to listen hoping to hear more of theMerriweather sound.”

The success of Merriweather Post Pavilion gave the group some new pressure, though not externally. The album, recorded in Oxford, Mississippi during Dibb’s hiatus from the band, wasn’t just a critical and commercial smash: It was also a high water mark for Weitz, Lennox and Portner.

“Noah has used the golf analogy of trying to beat your personal best,” said Weitz. “For the three of us, Merriweather was really special, and having that feeling like when we finished it and feeling we’d made something we were really, really proud of. I know what that feeling is, so now I know more when I’m settling or compromising myself. But I don’t think commercially, it’s too difficult to anticipate what anybody wants.”

Dibb rejoined Animal Collective in 2010, heralding something of a return to their roots, as the group headed back to Baltimore to write and record in a room together for the first time in…well, a long time. “I would say it was integral to the way the songs turned out,” said Lennox.

“We always throw some words around to get the inspiration, and we had some melodies going in,” said Portner. “Josh, Noah and I had written between the three of us five songs when we went in with the idea that we would keep jamming and write as we went. The three months there was kind of like a workshop and we also had time to work individually and produce stuff as we were writing.”

Though the move was deliberate, the group said it wasn’t because they felt a particular need to tap into what made Animal Collective so special all those years ago.

“I don’t think we ever lost that,” said Weitz. “I don’t think this was so much about needing to recapture something, so, ‘Let’s go back to Baltimore.’”

Instead, it was more about wanting to take a different approach, one which was less about technology and more about the immediacy of smashing the shit out of one’s instruments.

“It was a bit reactionary maybe to the sort of sample-based nature of Merriweather,” said Weitz.

“That manner of interacting with music and performing music, we felt like we had taken that with Merriweather where we wanted to. We needed a change, and with that change we needed to bring energy back into playing music as just a contrast. And the four of us playing live together with this instrumentation seemed like it would accomplish that. Baltimore was chosen more as a convenience than an attempt to recapture something, because I don’t feel like we’d really lost all that much.”
The members of Animal Collective grew up in and around Baltimore, playing music together in various incarnations. But it wasn’t until after high school that the group began to come together as we know them now. Lennox and Dibb headed to Boston for college, while Portner and Weitz went to school in New York City. After working long distance and traveling back to Baltimore to record for a few years, the group turned New York into their home base in 2000, with Portner and Lennox working in one of the city’s still-surviving independent record stores, Other Music. It gave them a chance to both fulfill and destroy their dreams.

“My big goal as a musician was the have a barcode and a really official-looking package,” Lennox laughed.

“I always wanted to find my music in a section of a store I’d usually shop in,” said Weitz. “And at first you’re just in ‘Miscellaneous A.’”

“The first record Noah and I worked on (Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished), that getting a write-up in Time Out and it was featured in Other (Music), it was like, ‘Alright, that’s it!’”

But getting what you want isn’t always a blessing.

“Actually, working in a record store made me hate music for a long time,” Portner said. “Having access to everything all the time, I was like, ‘I can’t even decide what I like anymore.’”

Initial reports of the music on Centipede HZ were often based on live performances of the songs played around the world last year, though as we’ve already established, with Animal Collective that doesn’t exactly give on much to go on. It was believed that the album would be a severe and unapproachable departure from Merriweather Post Pavilion, though that’s proved not to be the case. As PopMatters’ Arnold Pan pointed out in his album review (8-out-of-10), “Centipede Hz is an album that’ll get a hold on you as all its arms grab on and don’t let go.”

“I think there’s something very inherently Animal Collective about it,” said Lennox of the new album. “Compared to Merriweather, there’s a lot more going on and a lot more to navigate. But I don’t think that makes it a difficult record, because some of my favorite records have been like that and you hear more with repeated listens.”
Dibb agreed.

“I think Merriweather was one, and some of our other records have been like this, that it’s an instant thing,” he said. “At least that was my experience listening to it as a fan, that it immediately struck a chord and took off. Not that it wasn’t challenging, but it didn’t take a lot of work to get there. And I don’t think this is an instant record. You have to think about this for a second and take it in.”

It’s worth noting that the group released music between Merriweather Post Pavilion and Centipede HzODDSAC, an experimental visual album collaboration with filmmaker Danny Perez which took four years from inception to completion, was released in early 2010. And a few months prior to the release of Centipede Hz, the group released a double-sided single with “Honeycomb” and “Gotham” an admitted red herring they acknowledged would probably make some fans incorrectly feel like they knew how the album was going to sound.

“Those songs didn’t really fit on the record, and we thought they’d be a good introduction to the band stuff,” said Weitz.

Visuals are also an important part of the Animal Collective experience, from their stage show to ODDSAC. While all four members of the group have had a hand in how their record sleeves are designed, Portner is the most connected to that, often working with his sister, Abby Portner, an artist and musician, to create the final product.

“It’s varied from record to record,” Portner said. “For Merriweather when we were on the way to one of the studios we found that optical illusion and we were all like, ‘Oh, wow.’ For (Centipede Hz) it was more like collecting and we were all involved. Sometimes I have this idea in my mind and ask my sister Abby. Something else I might do on my own or we might all contribute something.”

Asked whether he felt as though any particular Animal Collective record sleeve had visually captured the sound of the music, Portner said it wasn’t that easy to define.

“People react to that kind of thing so differently and it’s so specific to the experience of listening to music,” he said. “With Strawberry Jam there are lots of people who think it’s just disgusting, but for me, it’s a really pretty colorful way of presenting something, and you start to realize the more you do something…Like ODDSAC, which I think is the perfect combination of music and visuals that people are just not always going to get what you’re trying to push out there. But I think there’s something to be said for a really sweet record cover. I really like the cover to Feels a lot, that’s one of my favorites, but I wouldn’t necessarily think that you can listen to the music and stare at the cover and think, ‘That’s perfect.’”

“The cover is just an added flavor to the music,” Lennox said. “It doesn’t affect how the music sounds.”

Animal Collective begin a three-week North American tour later this month, with European dates to follow. They’ll make stops in New York and London, two cities they admit to being among the most difficult to play.

“With cities like London or New York, on any given night there might be four great shows and the people in the audience go to music all the time,” said Dibb. “If you play places that are a little more afield, there’s pure appreciation of the experience of having us show up that can be really gratifying. There’s less pressure in this weird way. In Zagreb, Croatia people are just psyched. We played Moscow for the first time and people were psyched. Those are places where it’s special for bands like us to come through.”

Portner admitted that it’s not always easy to know from the stage whether they’re playing a good show or not, and they don’t always agree with the crowd.

“There are some rooms that are great to play in and some that are tough,” said Portner. “But then I met this guy last night who found out I was in Animal Collective, and he was like, ‘Man, remember that one warehouse show and I DJ’d after you guys,’ and I thought, ‘That show was a nightmare,’ and he said he thought it was amazing. We played this show in New York where I basically just stopped because the bass frequencies were too intense, and for me it ruined the show, but for a lot of people they were like, ‘You guys were playing great.’”

Television provides its own difficulties for a group accustomed to experimentation, and much more so than in festivals the studio is not filled with partisan fans.

“I think the audience in those TV studios is completely irrelevant,” said Weitz. “The times we’ve played shows like that we’ve never even looked at the audience. They’re told with an applause sign to clap. I think more about what it’s going to translate into on the other side of the TV.”

“It’s the furthest away, especially in the live situation, of what we would do, take one song and play it,” said Portner. “Based on our history of how we feed off of live energy is to get this thing going and going and going, and then you’re put into that situation and it’s like, ‘Okay, guys: 4 ½ minutes. Do it!’”

The regimented time slot of a TV appearance isn’t the only hurdle for the group in using the medium.

“It’s difficult for us because they ask what we’ve got that’s four minutes long, and it’s not much,” said Weitz. “And we give them this one or this one, and they’re like, ‘You can’t play that.’”

In 2009, the group played “Summertime Clothes” on Late Show with David Letterman, a clear reminder that Animal Collective exists on the periphery of the entertainment industry.

“Paul Schaffer was really nice to us and acted like he listens and cared,” said Portner. “And David Letterman just made fun of our record cover.”

Things were even worse two years earlier when the group made its national television debut on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, where they remember switching gears at the last minute and performing “#1.”

“Conan O’Brien we’d heard was a really big music fan, and I’m friendly with the guys in Yeasayer, I’ve known them for forever,” said Weitz. “And they said, ‘He was really psyched to have us on the show, he loved our record.’ And I was like, ‘Really? He talked to us about how the Amtrak went through Baltimore, and that was it.’ We changed the song at the last minute, and I think he got word of it and was pretty bummed.”

Dibb remembered almost no direct communication from the lanky host following their performance.

“He actually didn’t say anything to us at all, but after we played he walked through and as he was shaking my hand, he said to the camera, ‘Baltimore, huh? I went through there on Amtrak once,’” Dibb recalled. “Cool. Nice to meet you.”

The sense of relative alienation doesn’t just apply to the world of television; they also feel it within the music industry. Collaboration outside of the group dynamic isn’t a natural fit for Animal Collective.

“There are certain people, especially in New York, where we’re not part of this fraternity who gets the stamp of approval from, like, David Bowie or David Byrne,” said Weitz. “We don’t make records with those people, but everybody else seems to. Not that we don’t like those people. For us it just doesn’t feel like our thing. Like with Arcade Fire backing up Bruce Springsteen just feels like it would be so far off from anything we’d do. And not even just those people, because I remember when Damo Suzuki was on tour, and in every city he said he wanted a different backing band. And for me, I just couldn’t imagine us sitting around the practice space and saying, ‘Damo Suzuki wants a backing band: Let’s do it!’ I just can’t see us making that decision.”

For a group so closely associated with dense sonic experimentation, they’re also acutely aware that not every journey is a good fit for them.

“There’s many different ways you can mix certain songs, and you can take a song like ‘Also Frightened’ and make a crazy mix out of it, and then you sit back and think, ‘Are people going to be into this? Am I even into this?’” said Portner.

“And it’s the same thing with an instrument, too. There have been times where it’s been like, let’s try that and then we realize it’s just not right for us.”

Weitz picked up the thread.

“Pedal steel is a good example,” he said. “I love pedal steel, and before we made the record I thought it would be great to have a pedal steel, because I lived in Arizona for a while and fell in love with that sound, and there’s this record, Chill Out by the KLF, and I wanted to incorporate that into this record. But the notes played in a lot of those country songs might not work with what we’re doing. So we thought maybe about having it played live and we invited Dave Scher who plays in a lot of bands and plays lap steel. And a lot of his stuff stayed on the record, but sometimes when it was too far up in the mix it was just like, ‘That doesn’t sound like Animal Collective.’ The closest thing it sounds like is maybe Wowie Zowie by Pavement or something, but it just takes you out of our world.”

While the musical world of Animal Collective is always evolving, so too are the personal lives of its members. They live in different cities living different lives; two of them, Weitz and Lennox are fathers. For Weitz, the latter in particular represents a big change.

“My work ethic I think is a bit stronger,” he said about fatherhood. “I feel like I can push past exhaustion more. Being a musician can sometimes be a cushiony lifestyle, and I have to think, ‘You know, for the next two weeks I’m not just going to smoke pot.’ And I think that’s necessary – not smoking pot, per se, but recharging – and the idea of sort of having someone to observe your work ethic a bit more, there’s just no excuse for laziness.”

“’I’ve got three hours to sit around and smoke pot and listen to records…Go!’” joked Dibb.

“The writing session we did was probably the most exhausted I’ve ever seen these guys,” added Portner.

But it’s a good change, not just personally but in what it brings to the music, both in its sound and its creation.

“I used to work on Capitol Hill and you don’t get a lot of sleep but you’re psyched,” Weitz said. “I loved my job there, and you’re happy to almost be exhausted. Work is your life, and that’s what this record is like. And the idea that there’s a child observing that, you should love what you do and put your all into it.”

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Published by Chronogram online on August 30, 2013 and in print shortly thereafter

Godspeed You! Black Emperor has always been something of an enigma, the band’s music a complex triumph of sonic, mind-melting exploration, haunting samples, and inspired composition. After a seven-year hiatus, GYBE reunited two years ago for a series of shows, and on Thursday, September 20, they’ll perform at Basilica Hudson, a venue ideally suited for the group’s epic vibe.

GYBE has been hailed as champions of a genre called post-rock, but whatever post-rock means is anyone’s guess; it’s an application most often bestowed on groups for whom no other location in a record shop’s filing system would make sense. There are traditional rock ‘n’ roll instruments in GYBE, though the guitars and drums are often used in a darkly classical milieu. And with albums like the stunning Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven unfolding like a film soundtrack, or movements in an epic symphonic piece, where the hell else other than the chin-stroking, intellectually stimulating post rock section would a record shop keep it?

Rumors abound that GYBE has been recording new material, though at present their last album remains Yanqui U.X.O., the group’s politically charged 2002 full-length that featured a cover photograph of bombs tumbling out of a military plane, samples of then-President George W. Bush, and artwork linking major record labels to arms manufacturers. Heady stuff, but the music has always been grandiose and emotional, the stuff of fantasy and nightmares. Think the darkness and odd swathes of light in the music of the Velvet Underground, John Cage, and Swans. And, thanks to Karl Lemieux, a member of the group whose primary responsibility at live shows is bathing the stage in abstract experimental film projections, a GYBE performance is a totally immersive, singular affair.
They may not have a new album on the way, but it’s not unusual to hear new material at a GYBE show. Just don’t expect the crowd to sing along, whether they know the songs or not, because aside from the aforementioned samples, GYBE’s music is strictly instrumental.

Since regrouping, GYBE have rekindled a relationship with All Tomorrow’s Parties, the UK-based promoter behind I’ll Be Your Mirror, a worldwide series of small festivals with days curated by musicians. The group’s date in Hudson was planned as something of a warm-up to an appearance at the annual US version of I’ll Be Your Mirror, originally planned to be held in Asbury Park, NJ. But last month it was announced that the festival had been moved to New York City, and, with the exception of a few artists, would keep its lineup intact. After performing in Hudson and New York City, GYBE will continue their tour through the South and Midwest until mid-October, when they’ll presumably steal away into the night refusing to confirm whether a new album will ever materialize.

Basilica Hudson, a hollowed out 19th-century factory on Front Street, is a few dark turns off of Hudson’s main hub, Warren, on the waterfront next to the train station. The mammoth stone-faced industrial building, which has been the site of performances by such art-rock luminaries as Patti Smith and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, is dimly lit and unheated, giving it a sense of the medieval. The various anterooms and vaulted gothic ceilings with intricately laced beams provide the perfect acoustics for GYBE’s atmospheric ebbs and echoes.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

'Blur 21': The Best of the Rarities

Originally published by PopMatters on August 22, 2012

Calling the new Blur box set (named Blur 21, honoring the 21 years since their first official release) a treasure trove is, if not a bit hyperbolic, certainly not inaccurate. If, like many of my fellow music nerds, you’ve all but abandoned the compact disc in favor of the tried and true vinyl option, there’s a version of the box set just right for you. While including all seven of the band’s studio albums in thick vinyl cut from oak trees (probably), the collection is lacking many of the bonuses which made the CD version too tempting to resist.

Each of Blur’s albums—from 1991’s Leisure to 2003’s Think Tank—is given the double-disc treatment in the CD set, with most of the associated b-sides and non-album singles chronologically placed, allowing the listener to effectively trace the development of one of England’s greatest bands, one which transcended its assigned genre (Britpop) to become something greater, even while celebrating its own inherent Englishness. The CD box set also includes a handsome hardbound book featuring recording information and what one hopes is merely an abridged version of a much longer and more comprehensive oral history. There are three DVD’s included as well, rounding out the promo clips for anyone who already has Blur: The Best Of, and featuring a live performance from the “Singles Night” tour in 1999, a brief run through of 13-era songs from earlier that year and Showtime, a 1994 performance at Alexandra Palace previously only available on VHS. For completists, there’s also a one-sided vinyl single recorded in 1989 when the band was still called Seymour.
But really, the most compelling reason to opt for the CD version of the box set (assuming you’re not simply downloading everything off of torrent sites) is the inclusion of four rarities discs covering the span of the group’s history, from the Seymour-era right up through their 2010 Record Store Day single “Fools Day” and “Under the Westway”, one of two songs recorded in anticipation of Blur’s headline performance in London’s Hyde Park last weekend, a show in celebration of the Olympics and British music of the non-Spice Girls variety.

The rarities discs, arranged like the rest of the box set in chronological order, are fascinating, with many demos and alternate versions of familiar songs, jam sessions, and unfinished thoughts (including the unfortunately-titled “Sir Elton John’s Cock”, a too-brief bit of piano-led melancholy which sadly never developed into anything more). It’s moments like those which make the set like Blur’s career since reuniting with guitarist Graham Coxon (absent from Think Tank, except on the gorgeous “Battery in Your Leg”) in 2009 so goddamned frustrating; Blur should record a new album and tour the entire world, and their inability to commit to anything beyond brief joyful blasts like their handful of Hyde Park warmup dates across England (and a pair of festival appearances in Denmark and Sweden) is difficult for anyone not in Blur (and maybe a couple of the guys actually in Blur, too) to fathom.

It’s partly why my girlfriend—fiancé, now, because I put a ring on her finger in Hyde Park a little over a week ago and she said yes—and I made the trip over in the middle of the Olympics. Yes, we had a wonderful time in my favorite city other than New York, and we spent time with friends and hit museums and record shops and regretted not having arranged for tickets to see any Olympic event. But what we also did was take a two-hour train trip to Margate for the first of the warmup shows at the Winter Gardens, an old music hall which hosted the Beatles nearly 40 years ago. Because I’m still almost completely incapable of conveying what the night meant to me, I’ll say in brief that it was one of the greatest gigs I’ve ever seen. The band was all smiles, and even when they messed up “Trimm Trabb” or “Sing”, or Damon Albarn couldn’t remember which line came where in “Coffee and TV” it was absolutely a celebration. Sure, Graham teetered on the verge of inconsolability when his amp wilted in the oppressive heat, but a hug and kiss from his old friend Damon set it all straight.

And maybe we’re meant to enjoy these moments as they come and file them away and not long for more, but with all the joy on that stage that night, it’s natural to want them to do it all over again, but in New York this time (or wherever you happen to be from). If they never play again, I will be satisfied because I shared this moment with Blur and around 2,000 of their fans. It’s a version of a mantra I’ve repeated again and again as a fan of Blur: If they never release another song again, I’ll still be happy. If they never play another show together, I’ll still be happy. If Alex James continues devoting his energies to cheese-making and having interestingly-named children rather than picking up a bass guitar, I’ll be happy. I love Blur, probably as much as but in a different way to my other favorite bands, the Beatles and the Clash. I’m grateful Damon and Graham have both continued making music outside of Blur that I genuinely enjoy, but even if I thought they totally sucked I’d still be just as happy with what they’ve done in Blur. Fandom is confusing sometimes.

A cynic might consider Blur’s pulling out the stops when compiling their setlists for the recent shows as a craven attempt to illustrate how deep their back catalog is. “Young & Lovely”, a b-side to 1993 single “Chemical World” has always been a beautiful, Beatlesque gem, but they’d never played it live before. At Margate, Albarn self-consciously noted that it would have felt too corny to air it on stage before, but now that most of them have kids of their own it felt right. “Caramel”, a lengthy, atmospheric track from the William Orbit-produced 13 (released in 1999), is another song which was played live for the first time this year. But the cynics can go fuck themselves, because what Blur has proven is that their singles, while unbelievably catchy and wonderful, are not all that the band is about. The knees-up Englishness of “Sunday Sunday” and “Country House” are a key element to Blur’s sound, but so are sonic blasts of weirdness like “Trimm Trabb” and “Bugman” .

And so the rarities, four discs of material predictably varying in quality which, depending upon your perspective, may or may not be essential listening. “Red Necks”, a b-side to 1994’s “End of the Century”, is bad enough on its own, so the addition of two alternate takes seems a waste. And while Damon has all but dismissed Blur’s first album Leisure, the demos included show the band was on the right track with the finished product. “Wear Me Down”, for example, is a bit sludgy and slow in demo form, but its crunchy guitars and harmonies are partly whyLeisure is much more valid than Damon gives it credit for being. Remove the bad feelings Blur had about record company interference around that time (which included forcing the band to come up with “Bang”, a single they’ve tried desperately to forget in spite of it not being all that bad; and the removal of “Sing”, one of the band’s best early tracks, from the initial US release).

There are other missteps, though even if they don’t wind up in circulation on your iPod (purchasing any of the reissues and box sets comes with a download code), they’re still worth a listen. Modern Life Is Rubbish, released in 1993, has become something of a tentpole for Britpop fans, signaling a culture shift for Blur into a celebration of British music inspired by the over-Americanization of English society and the popularity of grunge. The album was produced by a number of people, including Stephen Street, who would go on to work with the band on their next three full lengths, but they had actually previously recorded some material with XTC’s Andy Partridge. Three of the songs from those sessions are included here, and while the early version of “Sunday Sunday” (called “Sunday Sleep” here) is an interesting listen, there’s nothing to suggest they hadn’t made the right decision in moving on.
But for all the tracks one might spin a few times for the sake of curiosity, there are some genuinely thrilling moments among the rarities.

Compiling lists is rarely a good idea, because no matter how strongly I might feel about a song or a band, it’s unlikely anyone will entirely agree with me. That can lead to some intriguing debate, but ultimately whether a Blur fan finds anything (or everything) on the rarities discs indispensable is up to that Blur fan. That said, I’ve made a list!

Those are by no means the only songs worth seeking out over the four discs of rarities, and even with the fairly hefty price tag, Blur 21 is worth picking up for fans. And maybe if more of us buy it, Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave will feel inspired to hit the studio and the road next year. Maybe . . .

1. “Death of a Party (Demo)”

“Death of a Party” turned up as a spooky organ-fuelled, full-band performance on Blur’s eponymous 1997 album, but the demo version of the song (recorded in 1992) was given to fans who subscribed to Blurb, the official fanzine, in 1996. The song was fairly complete in demo form, an acoustic run through with chilling harmonies, but it wasn’t until their post-Britpop comedown that the time was right to unleash the finished product.

2. “Far Out (Electric Version)”

Alex James’ spacy Syd Barrett-pastiche appeared in abbreviated form on 1994’s Parklife, but here the guitars and energy are turned up. It’s not necessarily a better version, but is every bit as intriguing.

3. “1”

Of the two tracks recorded in 2000 with Bill Laswell included on the box set, “1” is the most fully-formed, full of weird noises and chimes, and a laconic vocal from Albarn. It bears the sense of dread which pervades much of Blur’s later work, but in the best possible way.

4. “Dizzy”

One could argue which of the band’s earliest recordings best typifies what they were like when they were still called Seymour, but my money is on “Dizzy”, a song alternating between gently picked passages and spasms of kinetic energy. While Britain was in thrall to the Stone Roses and the Madchester scene, Seymour seemed completely oblivious (though later they’d adopt a few shuffle-beats in a half-hearted effort to latch on, their songs were never fully immersed in the ubiquitous sound of the day.)

5. “Seven Days”

Of the three songs here from the Andy Partridge sessions, “Seven Days” is the only one the band never re-recorded and re-released. It’s a testament to the strength of their material at the time that they could leave what could have at least been a quality album track or b-side with harmonies and a chorus which builds upon itself bit-by-bit from beginning to end.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Cold Day in Springtime... Damon Albarn Is My Hero

Originally published by PopMatters on April 20, 2010

Credibility is apparently a big deal in the music journo biz. I get that, at least in theory. I mean, I know why I’m supposed to take shit at face value and not let myself fall in love. But the whole reason I got into this mess in the first place was because I’m a fan and I get all emotional about music, and then I get all verbose and that just leads to trouble.

I love Damon Albarn.

There, I said it. It feels kind of good to get it out there, like therapy. Or exorcism.

I know it’s uncool or whatever to admit to having a musical crush on someone, but screw it. I love Damon Albarn. I love his vocals, both languid and falsetto, his enthusiasm for music of all shapes and sizes. I love that ridiculous gold tooth.

It started as most love stories do, with a blur. Only this was Blur, Albarn’s first exhilarating whiff of success, both as a songwriter and musician. I was an avid reader of the NME then, having first taken the plunge in college as I kept up with all the various Madchester groups and looked for wide-legged jeans in thrift shops. Blur came along with boasts that they were going to kill off baggy, but the first couple of tracks I heard retained the genre’s “Funky Drummer” beat.

But of course there was something else there, some link to either a past or future not even the Stone Roses could envision or hope to navigate. And if they didn’t actually kill off baggy, Blur outlived it. They outlived shoegaze, though songs like “Oily Water” off their second album, Modern Life is Rubbish, and later b-side “Bustin’ + Dronin’” traipsed through its effects-rich fields. They outlived for years each new scene cooked up weekly by the British music press. And, most fittingly, they outlived BritPop, a movement they spearheaded, one which utterly destroyed their chief rivals, Oasis, who hid behind gargantuan egos and refried Beatle-riffs and stadium-shaking concerts for 15 more years, before finally going out with a whimper, unable to ever achieve the same level of dominance they’d shown during the scene’s all-too-brief run.

Blur themselves nearly succumbed, releasing a critically inferior follow-up to Britpop’s celebrated masterstroke, Parklife. It’s not that The Great Escape wasn’t any good. But in a world that moved impossibly fast, Blur didn’t move quickly enough to shed their skin and re-emerge dressed in some other finery. That would come later, but their misstep nearly cost them their credibility, and more significantly, their guitarist, Graham Coxon, a legendary partier who made the tabloids by being hit by a car and living to tell the tale. His decision to not bail on Blur in spite of his clear discomfort in their chart-annihilating “Country House” video would save the band, not just allowing them to reinvigorate The Great Escapeby giving it untold texture while touring the shit out of the album, but also pointing them in their new direction with his fondness for American indie rock.

References were made to Pavement, though the self-titled Blur really only shared a distant kinship with the Stockton, California band’s music in its comparative refusal to smooth out the edges with a glossy production sheen. Still, the album was a triumph, finally breaking the band in America with the “WooHoo”-heavy “Song 2”, thus putting the band alongside everyone from the Ramones to Gary Glitter in becoming clipped sports arena staples. There was much more to Blur than the album’s first frenetic salvo. “Death of a Party” and “I’m Just a Killer for Your Love”, for example, still retained the band’s songwriting skills, but the tunes were also kinda weird. The follow-up, 13, was both more experimental and romantic, teaming lush ballads to love longing and love lost with often impenetrable exercises in artistic tomfoolery.

Blur released one more album in 2003, the underrated Think Tank, which incorporated elements of Albarn’s now-complete transformation into the world music-touting Sting it was okay to admit liking. The album, at least back then, also marked what felt like the permanent departure of Coxon. The guitarist, who himself had turned his love of the lo-fi indie aesthetic into a series of fine solo albums, appeared on just one track on Think Tank, peeling off a guitar line in the already mournful “Battery in Your Leg” that channeled all the pain and tension and heartache they must all have been feeling as they said goodbye.

On the surface, Albarn seemed alright with the split. After touring Think Tank, he focused his attention on a host of other musical projects, releasing a second collaborative album under the Gorillaz umbrella, joining forces with Clash bass guitarist Paul Simonon and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen in the Good, the Bad and the Queen and touring An Honest Jon’s Chop Up with a host of artists on the venerable London-based record label he helped kick-start. Blur was gone, and I told myself I was alright with it as long as Albarn and Coxon kept on releasing good music. And they really did.

See, here’s the thing about Albarn – It sounds ridiculous saying it in my own head, so I’ve no doubt it’ll sound completely insane to naysayers and pooh-poohers alike, but Damon Albarn is the closest thing we’ve got to a renaissance man. Not everything he touches is the purest of gold. There have been duds, for sure. But if a guy can put a song like Gorillaz’ lush “Hong Kong” on a benefit compilation instead of as the centerpiece of his own album, well that’s pretty special. The majestic “Sunset Coming On” closed out the Honest Jon’s shows in splendid fashion, and it was buried on the little-heard Mali Music album.

And then Blur weren’t dead after all, performing a handful of shows, both small and massive, including a pair of headline gigs in London’s Hyde Park last July, the latter of which I’d bought a ticket to, yet regrettably could not attend. And then they were gone again, with members of the band sounding as though they’d have liked to see more of the same and maybe some new material too, why not? But Albarn killed that hope, instead pushing a third Gorillaz album, which finally dropped over a month ago to great hype and acclaim

Make no mistake, because everyone’s a critic; Plastic Beach may not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially those who’d hoped it would more closely echo Gorillaz’ sophomore effort, Demon Days. But while the album did share its predecessor’s grand thematic drive and collaborative esprit de corps, it’s something altogether different. The first full track features Snoop Dogg in George Clinton mode, giving “Welcome to the Plastic Beach” its “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” smooth. And it rolls on from there, with everyone from Lou Reed to Mark E. Smith to, once again, De La Soul all jumping on board.

On the surface, Gorillaz is a cartoon band, with an elaborately expanding story arc to cover its four characters. But while that piece of the puzzle might appeal to some, what really makes Gorillaz special is Albarn, not only in his grand musical vision and melting pot approach to making it happen, but also his canny understanding of how and when to keep his massive ego in check because the music really is the message.

It’s true, my musical hero doesn’t lack in confidence. People I know who’ve met him have described everything from a sweetheart to a Scrooge, and there’s footage all over the internet to support all points between the two extremes. Maybe Albarn is a real asshole. But so are a lot of geniuses, and if we can’t separate what art from the artist, we’re left with nothing but a pile of dreary detritus, and that’s not a whole lot of fun to listen to at full volume soaring down the motorway with the windows open. “Stylo”, the first single from the futuristic/apocalypticPlastic Beach, on the other hand, is perfect for such road-based outings, and its video sure sells that point nicely.

And as I listened to “Rhinestone Eyes” and “White Flag” and – especially – “Empire Ants” for the millionth time, I knew I had my summer soundtrack, felt the warmth of the pavement breaking through the bitter, fleeting cold of winter. And then came the news that Blur maybe weren’t really dead after all.

It started as a rumor, or at least appeared to be. Did Blur suddenly get together in a studio to record a track for a very limited run 7-inch single in celebration of Record Store Day, the annual event designed to keep the little guy from getting dragged into oblivion by the murky undertow of technological progress. Was Blur really about to release its first single with Coxon back in the fold since 2000’s “Music is My Radar”? Thankfully, yes. That’s exactly what happened, and after the 1,000 copies of the single sold out on Saturday, the band put the thing up for free on their official website as a download. And, yeah, I’ve crippled my objectivity by falling prostrate at Albarn’s well-heeled feet, but gee whiz, “Fool’s Day” is really, really good.

It’s hard to know what goes on in a man’s head. Did Blur reunite last year because they felt like they had unfinished business? Was it the promise of truckloads of cash being dumped at their front doors? Was their bond with each other and their fans so strong that the pull proved to be too difficult to ignore? It was probably a bit of each, with a dash of whatever enigmatic folderol Albarn had coursing through his veins on that particular day.

But when it was all over, when the tents were folded up and the footage for the documentary and concert film shot, why didn’t Blur just let goodbye be goodbye? The answer, or at least part of it, might be found in the lyrics to “Fool’s Day.”

It’s a day in the life for Albarn, as he covers what happens from the moment he wakes, interspersing mundane images like eating breakfast and dropping his kid off at school with marginally existential side roads thrown in. And part of this day’s journey, April 1, 2010, is a trip to the recording studio, and most gloriously for Blur fans, “A love of all sweet music. We just can’t let go.” Whether this is a new beginning or the end through an admission that these four men mean more to one another than they knew is unclear. If this really, REALLY is the end, it’s a beautiful goodbye.

That lyrical itinerary recalls “Busy Doin’ Nothin’”, a song on the Beach Boys’ 1968 album Friends. The album comes in at just under 30 minutes, and was almost forgotten upon arrival. But I’ve always really loved it, in part because it’s got a warmth and intimacy and, well, friendliness. It was probably therapeutic for Brian Wilson to work on albums like Friendsand its predecessor Wild Honey after the whole SMiLE/Smiley Smilefiasco sent him over the edge. And while I appreciate that gentle vibe, there’s one song that just takes the comfort level a bit too far. “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” is essentially a list of shit Brian’s planning to do that day. And it’s a boring day, too. But the Beach Boys, like Blur, somehow manage to make it sound way more interesting than our own boring days.

And so on to the music. Dave Rowntree is as solid as ever on drums, and Alex James’ bass seems to have shelved its debt to Duran Duran’s John Taylor for the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep” by way of Simonon. And the harmonies… and the guitar… Much as I convinced myself that Think Tank was alright without more than a brief Coxon cameo, his guitar on “Fool’s Day”, especially that riff as the song fades, with hints of sweeping harmonies in its wake. This is what always made Blur so brilliant, all of it together.

Albarn’s other band, Gorillaz, closed Coachella on Sunday, bereft of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who were grounded by volcanic death dust. If the water cooler disappointment on the festival’s official message board is any indication, there was too little cartoons, too little energy, too little when a festival closing slot needed much too much. I wouldn’t know. I spent the night with the Blur: Live at Hyde Park film, comforting myself over missing one Albarn concert by watching another one I’d missed. Such is often the way with fandom; the missed opportunities so often pile up toward the sky while the good stuff can fit in a tiny box on your dresser. But it’s those moments, and the music what it does to us that makes it all so meaningful.