…I remember that if I ever actually attain competency at the two main skills I’ve really tried to teach myself as an adult, I’ll be a Japanese-speaking banjo player. And on one hand, I chose this. But on the other… I mean, come on.

Aug 18

Pitchfork discovers exciting new singer-songwriter! Do you think they’ll Best New Music her album?

Pitchfork discovers exciting new singer-songwriter! Do you think they’ll Best New Music her album?

Ingrid Michaelson, “Girls Chase Boys,” Lights Out (2014)

I really like this song! We did it at the Jukebox earlier in the year, to lukewarm response, but it passed me by and I only just heard it recently. (I swear this is not the reason why.)

Apparently Michaelson is a singer-songwriter who has a fanbase that is passionate, larger than you might think, but not particularly possessed of cultural cachet. She’s known for contributing songs to Grey’s Anatomy, which might account for her status on the margins of popular music; it’s a show young enough to have an audience interested in a lively soundtrack, but old and female enough not to have anyone else care. But I still don’t really know much about Michaelson, so mostly I’m just guessing.

I like “Girls Chase Boys” basically because I think it’s cute, and as with considering something to be clever, it’s not a particularly defensible explanation for the appeal of a song. One person’s cute is another’s cloying, and I’m not sure I can accurately predict even for myself what it takes for something to fall on the safe side of the line distinguishing charming from nauseating.

So I think the Postal Service, early Architecture in Helsinki, All Girl Summer Fun Band, and Lisa Mitchell’s “Coin Laundry" to be kinda adorable, and Karmin, I’m From Barcelona, the songs in which Robyn is happy, and Owl City’s “Fireflies” to be pretty gross. The Regina Spektor and Ben Folds duet “You Don’t Know Me" is treacly, but I like it anyway. (It has a lot in common with the Michaelson song, actually.) I consider Frente’s "Accidently Kelly Street" to be completely endearing, but I might not think that if I hadn’t first heard it when I was nine years old. Meaghan Trainor’s "All About That Bass" could strike the right person as cute. Why is it I love Feist’s "Mushaboom" but "1234" leaves me cold?

If there is something stark that distinguishes the good from the bad amongst this collection, I’m not sure I could pinpoint it. If someone were to hold the complete opposite view to me on each of those songs, I wouldn’t be able to say what it was that set us on different sides of the fence. Cute works in mysterious ways.

Why is cute appealing at all in music? It’s often not; its often an indicator of insubstantiality; of triviality; of the elevation of aesthetic over meaning, and a flimsy and unserious aesthetic at that. Cute is flim-flam. It is feminine. It is childish. More troubling for those of us tempted to defend it on the basis that all of those prior things should not necessarily be considered bad is that cute is also, more often than not, white and monied — look at my list of artists above — suggesting it’s a luxury of the moderately privileged. Perhaps that’s why, in pop music, cute is the province of middle class white women — though middle class white men who deploy it seem to attract less scrutiny.

(There is a non-white cute in the Japanese aesthetic of kawaii — which folks seem to consider directly translatable to cute in English, and I wish I knew enough about Japanese culture to say definitively whether they are indeed interchangeable. Nonetheless, for Westerners, kawaii is a non-White cuteness, sure, but it’s also exoticised foreign cuteness.)

A close ancestor of cute in today’s indie-pop is probably the twee bands of the 1980s and 1990s. The names alone suggest as much: Sarah Records, The Field Mice, Talulah Gosh. Later, Belle and Sebastian named themselves for a children’s cartoon. The Lucksmiths and Darren Hanlon share a wordy vocal style that echoes the repetitive directness of a child’s speech. These bands were wont to augment their sound with lo-fi accompaniments that share a rudimentary quality with toy instruments: glockenspiel, drum machine, ukelele, cheap keyboards, handclaps. Tilly and the Wall used tap shoes for percussion.

Especially in the early days, many of these groups cut the preciousness of their sound with dark or wistful or unexpectedly adult themes (there’s a deep sadness to the Field Mice’s “Emma’s House”; Another Sunny Day sang “You Should All Be Murdered”; Belle and Sebastian songs were fey odes to sex and religion). But this seemed to fall by the wayside as cute continued its hold on indie-pop into the early ’00s. And not always at the expense of the music, either; many songs of this era survived arrested development, sexlessness, or an aversion to low-end. For every Devendra Banhart there was a Pipettes. For every awful Moldy Peaches song there was a great Moldy Peaches song. 

At the Jukebox, Crystal said of “Girls Chase Boys,” “The clap-stomp-plink-clash percussive quality of all of Michaelson’s instrumentation isn’t quite trendy,” and that’s right, but it’s very cute, and typical to this style. In my attempts to make adwave happen (it still might!) I said, discussing Anna Kendricks’s “Cups”:

…advertisers have found in this specific indie-pop sound the perfect accompaniment for a product pitch. But what is it about trad-folk facsimile, merely good-enough vocals, airy arrangements, and musique concrete hooks — chimes, claps, whistling, cups — that so evidently suggests 21st century commerce? Well, there’s plenty of aural space for voice over. The style of singing is approachable in the same way punk is; the amateurism is inclusive. The acoustic sounds suggest a Walden-esque (or at least Etsy-an) authenticity. Given the — fair or otherwise — cultural connotations indie rock shares with a young and cosmopolitan leisure class, there’s probably an aspirational element as well. And it helps that many people seem to genuinely like this music; the mode is fun and the hooks are ear-catching in their compositional unfamiliarity. 

Adwave isn’t always cute; it isn’t always terrible either. The feel-good vibe seems appropriate here; again at the Jukebox, Katherine chastised the Michaelson track as “a breakup song for breakups so blithely unemotional you don’t need songs,” but it sounds to me more like a post-break-up song, a tune for the times when the worst is over and you feel like you might be able to start building yourself back into being a normal person again. “All the broken hearts in the world still beat” is a great lyric and in the context of the song, it sounds like a hard-won realisation, not vacuous optimism. Still, it would still sound perfect soundtracking a thirty-second slot promoting the newest Apple product.

Another word for adwave — and “Girls Chase Boys” fits even better into this category — might be lifestyle indie, with the adjective being used in the same sense as it is in lifestyle magazines. Lifestyle indie, whose origins I’ll date to Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks” and whose most significant moments include Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” fun.’s “We are Young,” and the entire existence of American Authors, is indie rock not about a lifestyle — Pavement was that — but that presents itself as a product designed to fit as seamlessly into one’s lifestyle as a throw rug or a new dining set or a coffee table book from Urban Outfitters. It’s indie pop where the set of artistic ideals have been flipped from those of indie rock (music assumed, correctly or otherwise, to be “virtually impossible to make .. compatible with mainstream tastes in the first place”) to those of pop (catchiness, immediacy, spectacle) only with the crucial handicap that it discounts the personability and charisma of mainstream pop stars. (Perhaps someone somewhere actually does consider Nate Ruess to be their own personal Harry Styles; if so, that is wonderful!)

I checked out a couple other Ingrid Michaelson songs, and none I’ve come across seems particularly charming, (“You and I" begins by rhyming "honey" with "money" and "funny" with "bunny"!) so I don’t think I’m missing a special talent. This does seem to suggest lifestyle indie, though I would argue "Girls Chase Boys," in its I-get-knocked-down determination, has a stronger emotional tug than anything I’ve heard from that sphere since MGMT’s trio of debut singles. But if "Girls Chase Boys" is cute like a cute wall fixture or a nice set of stationery, then those are lovely things to have! One of my friends bought a finely detailed hand-drawn map of Washington DC off the Internet and I totally covet it; it’s compact and beautiful. And "Girls Chase Boys" is a song I have to stop myself from listening to too often in case I grow tired of it too quickly.

(Source: Spotify)

Aug 17

Swift Secrets Reveals Taylor’s Bro Country Future.

Swift Secrets Reveals Taylor’s Bro Country Future.

Augie March, “One Crowded Hour,” Moo, You Bloody Choir (2006)

In that Augie March blurb, I suggested I thought Glenn Richards was a clever songwriter, and, yes, I do. It’s risky describing someone as clever in criticism; it exposes the limits of one’s credulity, and even for a critic that accepts (celebrates!) the intrinsically subjective nature of our work, credulity is a value to be jealously guarded. It is easy to praise songwriters as smart, or adept, or talented; there’s a component of craft in all of these adjectives that reserves the creative process as something distant, to be studied. Suggesting something is intelligent, however, allows my own capabilities to be questioned. Maybe it is a boyish pride, or a nerdish one, but more intimidating than the prospect that someone might sneer at what moves me is the idea that someone might be unimpressed with something I consider intellectually impressive.

But I do consider, say, “One Crowded Hour” to be intelligent, to be clever. I am impressed by the stylised romanticisms of Richards’s wordy tribute to a hook-up with a high school buddy. I admire the seasick assonance of his disaffected dismissal of “nonsense bars with their nowhere music” and his Southern hemispherical inversion of seasonal imagery that is “I thought I had found my golden September in the middle of that purple June.” I think “there’s nothing there, it’s like eating air/It’s like drinking gin with nothing else in” is propulsive internal rhyme that swallows its hollowness in upon itself. I think the earthy pun about “a bolt from the blue” and a “glorified screw” is inspired. I like that Richards imagines his fleeting romantic encounter as a classical epic that finds him encountering a “green-eyed harpy of the salt land” and places him “in a cage full of lions, [where he’ll] learn to speak lion,” and ending up in “wreck and ruin.” I’m even impressed that the band transcribes their lyrics like so: “She says, ‘Boy, I know you’re lying… O but then so am I!’, and to this I said, ‘O well’.”

Perhaps you do not agree. It would be uncomfortable for me to be thought a dupe or a simpleton. But I do like this song not because of its corporeal pleasures or formal accomplishments, but because it impresses me.

(And here is where I think of every 50 year old critic who declares Bob Dylan to be not simply a smart songwriter, but a poet.)

This is what I said about the song, when the old-old-old Jukebox covered it:

Glenn Richards sounds like he has invested more effort here in creating the imagery and wordplay he uses to describe infatuation than some people spend on entire relationships. Lines like “If love is a bolt from the blue, then, what is a bolt but a glorified screw, and that doesn’t hold nothing together” are only the beginning; marvel as Richards’ lets his carefully crafted words stand strong amidst the track’s turbulent crescendo, singing about his “wreck and ruin,” and learning to speak the language of lions, as if relating a classical myth rather than a pop song. In contemporary Australian music, there is little better. 

It wasn’t even the highest-scoring song by an Australian group that week.

(Source: Spotify)



"I go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way" — not the guy from Augie March…

Jonathan Bradley: I don’t need my songwriters to be clever, and it’s usually better if they’re not, but I always used to appreciate that Glenn Richards — a kid from Shepparton no less! — was, like Robert Forster and Grant McLennan before him, unashamedly writerly in outlook. To swipe from Billy Connolly, Australia’s the sort of country that too often mistakes the tourist crap for culture, and though it’s true that “many Australians are quite cheerful about their status as the funny drunk uncle in the world,” I admired Augie March for being a band not of larrikins or bush poets or even, in the vein of Tim Rogers, bloke savants. They were florid and ambitious and solemn, taking their name from a Saul Bellow picaresque and their style from the lush and the ornate. Their decline has been a long time coming — eight years since their most recent good album — but “After the Crack Up” is a disappointment nonetheless. The lyric arrives submerged, and though the hazy arrangement is pretty, they’re well versed in this kind of shimmering drift, and it’s usually not so empty. This is only clever in the same way as is the complimentary wine at a reading hosted by a well-stocked independent bookstore. Or, a different simile: there’s nothing there; it’s like eating air.”


[Read, comment and vote on The Singles Jukebox ]

I am saying things about the new Augie March single, and Australia.

Shut up Science, I’ve got Google spellcheck on my side. Who do you dumb science nerds think you’re impressing anyway?

Shut up Science, I’ve got Google spellcheck on my side. Who do you dumb science nerds think you’re impressing anyway?

Aug 11

Ralph is not a rule-follower like Lisa, nor a rule-breaker like Bart; Ralph does not observe the rules because he is almost completely unaware of them. More than any of the other students at Springfield Elementary, Ralph is a child. Bart and Lisa and Milhouse and Nelson and Janey are kids, and therein lies the difference. Ralph sees things that aren’t there (“Ralph, remember the time you said Snagglepuss was outside?” “He was going to the bathroom!”), eats paste, picks his nose, volunteers unprompted, nonsensical declarations (“My cat’s breath smells like cat food”) disguised as Zen koans. His character is sometimes written as dim-but-profound, sometimes borderline-psychotic, and occasionally developmentally disabled, but more than anything else, Ralph [is] like what he is: a child who hasn’t yet aged into a kid, which is one of the most embarrassing things a child can be.

Mallory Ortberg, “Not Allowed in the Deep End: Ralph Wiggum’s Finest Moments,” The Toast, August 11, 2014

It’s rare to find good writing about The Simpsons, both because people have been writing about it for 25 years already and because most people don’t realise that writing well about it requires pretending there have been no episodes made in a year beginning with 2. This is great though, in that it treats the characters sensitively and thoughtfully and also in that it spends a lot of time quoting really funny lines from the show, which is crucial to writing about The Simpsons.

(I like also its focus on the kids of Springfield Elementary as kids; I must say more some day about how one of the things that made it so great was not that it was an adult cartoon that looked like it was for children, but that it genuinely functions well as kid-lit in a way its successors don’t. Bart and Lisa are relatable to children and the plots in which they’re involved take place in a kid-size world and are told from a kid’s point-of-view. It’s not that the show’s material is understood differently depending on your age, though there are the jokes about Roy Cohn that operate in that way, but that there was a plausible Saturday Morning Cartoon happening at the same time as all the grown-up stuff.)

The first in the series, about Martin Prince, is equally enjoyable:

The piggy-print pajamas. The fuzzy pink slippers. Martin cannot even sleep right. He is hopeless; this is why I love him. He cannot keep his mouth shut, he is effeminate, he is excited about school, he is a narc, he is chubby (though not exactly drawn “rounder” than any of the other children, he is most often referred to as such), and he wants to be your best friend more than anything else in the world. Martin Prince is undeniable. He is no one but himself.

New fall/winter collection from Grimoire’s Verum line.

Basically someone needs to start a company devoted to turning tights into pants, because it is not fair girls get all these cool clothes and I don’t.

Geez Kickstarter do something useful for once why dontcha.


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