Saturday, June 15, 2013

Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
XL, 2013

I think I was probably too harsh with Contra. Or maybe I wasn’t, I haven’t listened to the album since I reviewed it in 2010. I referred to it as milquetoast and suburban and background music. I also wrote “I’m hoping it’s a sophomore slump because I want Vampire Weekend to make another record full of killer pop songs that are so good I don’t care that they’re copping African rhythms or whatever.” That was three-and-a-half years ago. I’ve mellowed out a bit. I’m still a bit of a wanker but I feel like I’ve gotten better at avoiding the hype machine after spending my entire tenure at KJHK living inside of it and, as music director, piloting the whole fucking thing (or at least that’s how I thought of it). I lived in trends, the next big thing, and that’s why when I graduated I listened to nothing but the Lemonheads for six-months straight.

Shortly after the release of their debut LP, I had a chance to interview the band with a friend of mine in the basement of Liberty Hall before a show. There is an audio file of that clumsy interview floating around on KJHK’s webserver (or better yet, it is gone forever. I never transcribed it). I was already a fan, but despite bassist Chris Baio’s bulldoggish attitude any time I said the word “hype” or “blogosphere,” Ezra Koenig was a total sweetheart and I came away understanding that they really weren’t faking. That though I didn’t have very much in common with these east coast boys who dressed like preppies, their hooks were pure, their songs were catchy, and their lyrics weren’t just a bunch of silly bullshit. They had a sense of humor but never got jokey. They were fresh.

Modern Vampires of the City feels like more of a successor to their eponymous debut than Contra (although I suppose the three fit together and illustrate an evolution that is important to judging the band’s work as a whole). It is a violently elegant pop record, and I’m not just saying that because of the harpsichord that pops up and really makes everything sound like a wonderful period piece. The melodies are both immediate and subtle. They are catchy enough to get stuck in your head with enough muscle to get better and better upon repeat listening. Which is why “Step” is the perfect first single. It almost sounds lazy. The song is so spare at times, with Koenig singing just through some light drums and a sleepy bass line. But then there’s the harpsichord, and the pitch-shifting that adds so much texture to the record. “Step” succeeds because it sounds both nostalgic and futuristic.

I pretend that I’m some kind of purist. A wonk bemoaning the fact that none of the music these days has guitars and it’s all a bunch of dipshits standing in front of laptops. And here Vampire Weekend have made one of the best indie rock records of the year and nothing is real. The live drums have been sequenced and programmed to death, the vocals are frequently manipulated, and the EQs have been clipped and manipulated to soften everything. But the songs come through so well. The melodies are what matter, and you can tell the band spent hours and hours trying to make them shine as best as they possibly could. Sometimes I feel like the great records are the ones that make me realize I’m wrong about something. The first time I listened to “Ya Hey” I fell back onto the futon halfway through the song and just listened. I stopped tinkering with my fantasy baseball team and just sat back and listened to the music. I never do that. I have a sort of amendment in my constitution of musical appreciation that says if a record can get me to put down everything and just listen, it has done something magical. It’s a sad relationship to have with music, but holy shit, when something cuts through the multi-tasking haze of my brain and really makes me stop and go “Goddamn, that is a fucking great,” that’s what I live for. The more I listen to Modern Vampires of the City, the more that keeps happening.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Kurt Vile - Wakin on a Pretty Daze

Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Matador, 2013

Kurt Vile always reminds me of the worst time in my life. That would be the summer after I graduated college. 2009. I’d just met the girl I was going to marry and I had absolutely no prospects. No job. Nothin’ but a girl who loved me which is really always enough pretty much. But I was dicking around. I was freelancing for the Pitch and that ruled but it was still college mentality. Adulthood was foreign at the moment. And then one of my best buddies Chris Bianculli got me a job at the property management company he worked for. First Management. They own a bunch of real estate in Lawrence and I heard the dude who owns the company has a giraffe or an elephant and a private jet. Some serious fucking moneyed guy. Anyway, I got a job doing move-out inspections, apartment cleaning and move-in inspections. I tried to hang on and at least have a ten-hour a week job to hang on to until I found something but the hours kept vanishing. Eventually Chris got fired for some nebulous reason and the person hired to fill his role managing the Canyon Court apartment complex in West Lawrence was totally out of touch. The first day I worked there she had left this note that instructed me to post all these fliers on every door of every apartment at Canyon Court but specifically instructed me NOT to throw all of them in the trash. It might have read like a joke if it hadn’t implied that I was some simpleton and was just going to say “fuck what my boss told me, I’m gonna play pool all day because there is a pool table literally twenty feet from my desk.” So I wrote her a note. It basically said “I think what you wrote here was really condescending. Why would you even imply that I would throw these fliers in the trash? I was paid to do a job and I am going to do that job and I think it’s kind of messed up that you implied that I wouldn’t do the job I was hired to do.” So I put up the fliers in the summer heat and went back to work. Work basically consisted of waiting for residents to get locked out of their apartments and charging them $25 to get let back in. It was a shitty place but I did it because I didn’t have a job. The rest of the job mostly consisted of playing pool and putting up balloons. I was still pretty annoyed with the new manager, and since she specifically instructed that I put up balloons I used the office’s helium tank to pump up like fifty balloons and I daisy chained them with ribbon and made a monolith of balloons out by the pool. I should note that the tone of her instructions was pretty horrible and that my note really wasn’t that bad. OK, it was pretty bad. I was totally in 22-year-old fuck you mode, but really, she had it coming. Because if you just took over an apartment complex and you want to win the trust and respect of your underlings you don’t get all I AM THE BOSS AND YOU WILL RESPECT ME on them. Because that is some stupid shit they probably teach you in business school. I don’t know. I never went to business school and I could probably out-manage any of these fucking pretenders at this point in my life. But anyway, I got fired for my transgressions. It was a beautiful firing. Grandiose and full of fuck you. A firing I never thought I would have because I am usually such a dutiful employee. Always on time, always eager to learn and eager to help. Once when I was working at the Chase Court Apartments KU Basketball legend Sherron Collins got locked out of is apartment and I let him back in for free! I knew I should have charged him, but who charges a local hero a fee to get let back into his shitty overpriced apartment that is probably being covered by the University anyway? Not this guy. When I was doing move-in inspections at Apple Croft (the lowest-rent of all First Management’s properties dubbed “Crapple Loft” by pretty much everyone because it was a dump) I encountered a German exchange student who was baffled by the amount of roaches in his apartment. The roaches were myriad. I’m talking climbing up the walls, climbing on the ceiling and navigating the carpeting. He had mattress cased in plastic wrap leaning up against the wall and the roaches had managed to find a way inside and were climbing all over the mattress.
            “This is really messed up,” I told him. “I’m going to get someone in here right away.”
            He just laughed. “In Berlin, apartments are much worse,” he said in his immaculate accented English. He poked at one of the roaches under the plastic wrap over the mattress and I ran back to the office at Chase Court to get the manager to send the exterminator out. Most of the apartments at Apple Croft had roaches. Most of the apartments had black mold too. I reported this problem and they just sent out Patrick the maintenance guy to paint over the black mold with white paint. Done and done. Apple Croft was also home of the pool where all of my friends and ex-friends notoriously went skinny-dipping. An absolute dump through and through.
            But I lost the thread. The point is, I was trying to make a stand for what was right and just and trying to make management see things through my eyes and they flat out refused. The next Monday, on the day of the all-staff meeting, I was called into the Chase Court office. I was met by the manager of Chase Court (who I’m fairly certain was the highest manager there was who didn’t own a Mercedes/exotic pet) and the new manager of Canyon Court who I had oh so recently reprimanded. I was promptly fired. I knew I was going to get fired because I’d been specifically instructed to come in early. I told Jenny I was probably going to get fired for what I’d said to the new Canyon Court manager and she didn’t seem too upset because it wasn’t a real job anyway. I got in the car and Kurt Vile’s Childish Prodigy was in the CD player and it was just starting over. Track one. “Hunchback.” It only took me five minutes to get to Chase Court from our apartment on 22nd and Tennessee and that song got me pumped up to get fired for the very first (and I can only assume last) time. I went in cool as a cucumber, had my transgressions recited to me and told the Chase Court manager what I thought of what was happening. I told her that I thought it was bullshit, and that what the Canyon Court manager had written was bullshit and I stood by the helpful notes I’d left on the weekend instructions. I awkwardly pried the keys off of my key-ring. I really should have taken them off before hand because that just made things weird. I threw them on the table, told them to “get bent,” and walked out the door. I reentered the office and told them both I was sorry I’d said “get bent,” and that I’d always wanted to say that to somebody and it just happened to be them and that I understood completely why I had been fired.
            In the parking lot I ran into my bro Mark. Mark and I had started at the same time. Both of us had been hired to clean apartments and not so explicitly let go at the end of turn. I slapped hands with him and told him what had happened and wished him good luck. A solid dude, through and through, forever and ever. He wished me luck and I left to the rest of Kurt Vile’s Childish Prodigy.
            Four years later, I’ve managed to work my way up into the management team at the Half Price Books in St. Paul. Lately, I’ve been driving to work listening to Kurt Vile’s latest album Wakin on a Pretty Daze and every morning I drive to work I can’t help but think of getting canned because Kurt Vile immediately makes me think of music to get canned to. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s music for the people who understand that the world works in a specific way and that the way the world works is never a way they’re going to work with. It’s a big fat fucking game, and I think Mr. Vile gets that. To me, his music always feels like a big fuck you to everybody. He just does his thing, rambles on, and then goes on his way.
            There is plenty of rambling here, more rambling than ever even. Childish Prodigy is still my favorite record of his because it was so messy and so built on Kurt Vile becoming a bona fide Singer/Songwriter with capitals. Smoke Ring For My Halo had a few tracks I loved but mostly I got bored. At first, I got bored with Wakin on a Pretty Daze until I listened to it a dozen times on the way to work. There was something transcendent about listening to the quasi title track at 7:45 in the morning and waiting for trains to pass on my way to a job where I felt like I was doing legitimate good work. Where no one is going to fire you for sticking up for yourself. I’ve always felt like that was why I got fired, and why I’ve always held the opinion that Doug Compton and First Management could all go fuck themselves. I fantasized about doing a mini comic about the whole experience and leaving it in the plastic Apartment Finder stalls located around downtown Lawrence. But the whole thing is easier to fit into an album review. Honestly, it’s ones of the best experiences I’ve ever had. You get it if you’ve ever seen the inside of one of those $900 a month apartments.
            After that I worked at CD Tradepost in Olathe for a handful of months (a job I did actually write a mini comic about) until I parlayed that experience into a job at Half Price Books. And I’m content enough. It’s not a dream job but I’m hungry and I like the work and I like the people and I like that I’m not working for a CEO who owns a private jet and a giraffe and buys up all the cheap property in a town and sells it back to the people at exorbitant prices. Those people can all get bent.
            Kurt Vile’s latest album is a bit long in the tooth, but it’s a piece of motherfucking honest work. You get an impression of this guy when you listen to his album. There’s not posing. No artifice. No goddamn dicking around. Just a dude from Philly speaking his mind and often doing it at length. “Wakin on a Pretty Day” is over nine minutes long and it’s got maybe the prettiest little riff I’ve heard all year. A laid-back riff that puts the mind at ease. To this day Childish Prodigy is my quintessential fall record. Every autumn, it finds its way back into my CD player. Something about the finger picking on “Blackberries” and pretty much every song. There’s a tone that bathes that whole album in dimming golden light and it is so insanely beautiful it’s almost impossible to express. Wakin on a Pretty Daze abandons the distant tone for directness. You can hear it best on the absolutely gleeful “Shame Chamber,” the sassy-as-fuck “KV Crimes,” and the chord changes in “Pure Pain.”
            Don’t be fooled into thinking Kurt Vile is some sort of prodigy. The feast he offers up is mostly sick guitar work and drugged-out-sounding vocals and cryptic lyrics, but the level of refinement he has achieved is brand new. I loved Childish Prodigy for its rawness, and I love Wakin on a Pretty Daze for its confidence. Kurt Vile is probably the sort of guy who wants nothing more than to be reviled in his own time and only appreciated years after his death. Too bad for him so many people are catching on.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Against Me! - Reinventing Axl Rose

Against Me! – Reinventing Axl Rose
No Idea, 2002
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $4

I was never very good at being a punk. There was a solid year in high school where I really cared about being legit, but that all fell apart when I admitted to liking Radiohead. But there was a year where I was listening to nothing but Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Minor Threat, Descendents and every band signed to Fat Wreck Chords (I always had a soft spot for pop). Against Me! Were a part of that too, but I never had the nerve to ever consider being an anarchist. Sure I wore an American flag patch upside down on my patch-covered hoodie but who was I kidding? I hated America, but 9/11 had just happened so I couldn’t really hate America. I was sixteen, and if I remember anything about sixteen it’s that all of my beliefs and opinions about God and Country were so fresh off the boat that they were quaint at best. Just groundwork for a more adult understanding of the Issues. But holy shit I loved Against Me! So much. They were making punk rock in a way I’d never heard before. The folk elements and the scream-a-long atmosphere like it was all one big party drew me in on the surface but it was Tom Gabel’s lyrics that really made me fall in love. There is just so much honesty in these songs. A sort of honesty that was kind of absent from NOFX (with the exception of The Decline) or Bad Religion or any other band trying to topple the system or making fun of George W Bush. Part of it was the way Gabel sounds like he’s about to lose his voice at any second, part of it was that he was just singing about his friends and himself. Personal politics are way more interesting than world politics. I still can’t tell if he’s serious when he’s singing “Baby, I’m an Anarchist!” but it doesn’t matter because the point gets across. The point gets across because it’s funny. Not like fart-joke funny but like legitimately, at its core, beautifully hilarious. I find it hard to believe that Gabel was being entirely sincere on that track considering Against Me!’s eventual signing to Sire Records and making a slick sort of folk-punk that was apparently better suited to the masses. I saw them play at one of 96.5 the Buzz’s summer concerts at City Market and I was just baffled that they looked like they were trying to be rock stars. I know it’s silly to call anyone a sellout, because as an adult and not a sixteen year old punker I understand that if you can justify compromising your ideals so you can provide for your family then you probably do it so long as it’s not too sleazy, but it wasn’t the band I fell in love with. The band that helped me stay politically aware and suspicious in a time when blind patriotism could have very easily taken over my young brain. You really can’t expect your punk rock idols to stay young and hungry forever, I suppose.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Sparks - Angst in My Pants

Sparks – Angst in My Pants
Atlantic, 1982
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2011
Price: $2.50

For all the haterade the 80s get dumped on them, were they really any worse than now? Are the 2010s the new 80s? The fashion is stupid, the popular music is brainless garbage, and the cool music all sounds like the same electronic bullshit that is going to sound incredibly dated by 2020. But that’s just the haterade talking. The haterade that courses through my veins and abates when I find a band that feels honest and genuine. I am reminded that they still exist, and get to avoid the fact that I’m living in the decline. This ties into Sparks because I feel like they were just weird and didn’t give a fuck and had fun. It’s incredibly dated to the era of early 80s synth-pop and new wave, but it’s cool. “Angst in My Pants” came into my life circa 2008 when it popped up on a mix CD a friend gave me. I was told the track was from the Valley Girl soundtrack. And then it never quite left my rotation. It would occasionally come up on shuffle and I’d be like “Oh yeah, this song is weird and catchy and great!” And I found the album a few years after that and that was that. When I finally watched Valley Girl a couple years ago I was dismayed that “Angst in My Pants” was not featured in the film proper. Instead the film uses “Eaten By The Monster of Love” and I cannot for the life of me understand why the soundtrack used a different Sparks song from the same album on the soundtrack instead of the one that was in the actual goddamn movie. Ok ok I figured it out. The point I was trying to make was this: Why does every cool band have to give off the appearance that they are too cool to have fun? Everyone is so fucking SERIOUS about their craft and/or image these days it’s impossible to enjoy anything. Angst in My Pants is enjoyable, dumb, and brilliant and I wish more bands were willing to be brash and more willing to make fools of themselves.