Sunday, December 30, 2007

LCD Soundsystem

Last December I requested to write a piece on the DFA DJ’s tour for the magazine I was contributing to at the time, the recently out-of-print Stylus. DJ Shit Robot and LCD Soudsystem’s James Murphy were on the bill and, naturally, I wanted to vouch my journalistic credentials to get access. The Osaka show (where I now live) was their first stop in Japan before flying off to Nigata the next night, and then Tokyo the following night for their final two shows. I wasn’t overly familiar with James Murphy’s work, save for a few singles, and even less so with DJ Shit Robot’s. My desire to write a piece on the show sprang primarily from a ten-minute sequence on Murphy’s recently released, Nike Run commissioned soundtrack, 45:33.

I could neither articulate to myself nor to anyone else how immediately engrossing that sound was. A few of my other colleagues at Stylus had similar reactions, even suggesting that this was the stuff of myth making.

Up until then, James Murphy was essentially known for appropriating all of the heterodox and experimentally precocious musical signifiers from 1978-85; from proto-House and Disco, to Hardcore, New Wave, No Wave and Post-punk, among others. 2002’s “Losing My Edge” was his first salvo. In it Murphy ironically name-checks almost every important band that Brooklynite hipsters should both know and be embarrassed of knowing, parodying the self-defeating accumulation of musical arcana as an arms race—cool as a function of superior information. Murphy’s conceit made you re-think about the way you consumed music and the reasons with which you justified your tastes to your peers and yourself.

Indeed, Murphy seemed to be afflicted by what Harold Bloom once called the Anxiety of Influence, an artist relationship with his precursors and the extent to which their previous works inform and undermine the artist’s creative field of possibilities. Sure Murphy was making incredibly danceable and engaging music, but it wasn’t really his, and anything as obvious as a squall of discordant, atonal guitar bursts (Gang of Four) or wood blocks (Human League) or cowbells (Liquid Liquid) or galloping bass lines (Public Imagine Ltd.) could give away linage. Then Sound of Silver leaked.

I first listened to Sound of Silver on the night of December 5th 2006, a few days before the DFA DJ’s show and a good three months before it was officially scheduled for release. Opener “Get Innocuous” was a standout even though the drumbeat was a recycled base line and the digitally filtered high-hat was straight from “Losing My Edge”.

The song is muscular sounding, and once the back-beat kicks in and the dirge-like electronic vocals overwhelm, the sound gets even more muscular, twitchy and altogether ominous. But two other songs caught my attention, and haven’t let go since. That 10-minute sequence from 45:33 is refashioned into “Someone Great”, a six minute and twenty-six seconds minimalist electro masterpiece.

Descriptions always come up wanting, and near as I can tell so many different reprogrammed and synthesized elements complicate an accurate description of “Someone Great”. The most recognizable sound, though, is a pulsing, alarm-clock repetitive synth organ that expands and contracts in duration and intensity as the other elements build to stifled crescendos. Another synthesized element, wiry and at times wispy, as if it were a computerized saw, counterbalances a kick-drum, deeper, synth organ keyboards, sequenced, higher toned synth keyboard arrangements that seem to tumble forward in odd, choppy, and dissembling chord progressions only to nimbly reassembling in reverse. It’s inventively composed, forming a goose-stepping, highly synchronized rhythm section. Murphy’s falsetto, along with a glistening, pointillist glockenspiel, offers a wan though emotionally melodic surface to the whole production; it bounces and buzzes, expands and constricts, whirs and shivers and hops. It’s a bad heartbeat.

As hollow and easily constructed as the arrangements can appear, put together with Murphy’s lyrics they announce a deeper resonance. “The little things that made me nervous/Are gone in a moment/I miss the way we use to argue/Locked in a Basement”. Many have taken to reading “Someone Great” as tract on the loss of a family member or a loved one, yet these lyrics seem to suggest an alternative, more ambiguous reading. Seen another way, Murphy appears to be mourning the loss of possibility in a relationship: “There’s all the work that needs to be done/It’s late for revision/ There’s all the time and all the planning/And songs to be finished.” The repeated chorus “And it keeps coming”, concluded with “till it stops”, plays up to the monotony of adulthood and the daily minutiae that obscures the emotional or spiritual self.

But even the first reading, of familial loss, registers: “When Someone great is gone/We’re saved for the moment”. It’s a testament to how continually listenable “Someone Great” is that it can refract any number of different readings.

The second song, “All my friends”, is an even more powerful and overwhelmingly stunning work, a kaleidoscopic yarn of nostalgia, and James Murphy’s strongest piece of songwriting to date. A friend of mine described the start of the song as a “computer seizure”, an extended, unvarying cross-rhythm of two piano chords that sandwich a subtle three-note pivot. The piano cycle is either grating or hypnotic if left on its own, but the song begins to shimmers with creeping peripheral ephemera: a crash cymbal struck, a tinsel high-hat marches, rolling tom strikes, and the re-purposed base line and lead guitar rhythms from New Order’s Ceremony. Its components have the cumulative effect of movement, of physical momentum, which seems right given the lyrical strategy.

“That’s how it starts
”: As literary if literal a beginning as you’ll find in music, “All My Friends” tracks the ruminations of an aged hipster looking back; from the halcyon glow of newly formed friendships, all night larks, and the youthful ambition and exuberance of wanting to conquer the world, “Set Control for the heart of the Sun”; to the hard facts of life and adulthood changing priorities, “You spent the first five years trying get with the plan/And the next five years trying to be with your friends again”; to the eventual dĂ©nouement, “It comes apart”; and all it’s implications, “ Though when we’re running out of the drugs/And the conversation’s grinding away.”

It’s a an achingly pessimistic song about how distance, time and responsibilities make it impossible to ever have those wonderful moments with our friends again, and that each time we attempt to replicate them we are almost always acknowledging this fact. And then we get older, talking, more often than not, of old memories but never really, or ideally, making new ones.

James Murphy’s 37 years old, and the coda to “All My Friends”, as much sweet reminiscence as plaint, is about the anxiety of becoming an adult

Oh, if the trip and the plan come apart in your hand,
you look contorted on yourself your ridiculous prop.
You forgot what you meant when you read what you said,
and you always knew you were tired, but then,
where are your friends tonight?

Because I had recently moved to Japan and was away, really, truly away, from friends and family, starting what felt like an adult life, these two songs, particularly “All of My Friends”, resonated with me. It took over a year of continuously listening to these songs and going through the travails of being an expatriate – the initial cultural shock, the dizzying and astonishing aspect of a different type of living, the homesickness, the new friendships with likeminded expatriates – to truly understand just how much it resonated with my particular situation.

A few days later I would go to the DFA DJ’s show to meet and interview James Murphy. He was good natured and unpretentious. What initially struck me about him was how talkative and open he was. We talked about travel and German toilets. It would never occur to me to ask about those songs or even the album because it was all still metabolism in me. When he went on stage for his set after Shit Robot, I walked over to the bar to get a drink. Moments later Shit Robot, who’ s real name is Marcus Lambkin, joined me at the bar. I asked him what his plans were for the holidays and he told me that he was going back to Germany with his fiancĂ©, who was there that night along with James Murphy’s wife.

I told him that Sound of Silver had leaked, that I had listened to it, and that I thought it was good. He nodded his head, not really responding. Not wanting to but really having to, I asked if he thought James would play anything off Sound of Silver. He said no. He said it was “very personal” to James, so I relented with that line of questioning. At the time I didn’t realize how much more personal it would become for me, too.

Monday, December 24, 2007


45:33 leaked sometime in October of 2006, and at the time, apart from the first twenty minutes, I didn’t bother (that is, didn’t have the attention span) to listen to the other twenty-five minutes. Year to date, I’ve only listened to it twelve times, in most cases not all the way through.

John Coltrane’s Ascension comes in at two listens. While the two albums both share the extended play times, 45:33 and Ascension are also alike in their stylistic ambition. The improvisational digressions of Coltrane’s ensemble set the stage for a break from the formalism of the music sheet, creating an unsettling dissonance throughout but ultimately producing a compelling and weighty aesthetic and narrative synthesis. There are times when the trumpet and saxophone solos seem willfully aimless, and in many respects they are, but the overall progression is one of both adventurousness and viruosity.

Likewise, the later third of 45:33, which is preceded by, most notably, a trio of trumpets and frenetic synths that eventually crescendo, seems equally to be in many different places at once and thus, in the end, nowhere. Too many elements are layered on, one after the other, into a kind of micro-produced seizure. An aggressive, reverberating bass line, over-processed and digitally distorted vocals, a skittering drum kit and a constricted piano cycle go on for what seems like forever, only to effervesce beautifully into droning electronic organs and cascading chimes. And this isn’t even the most strikingly powerful sequence on 45:33, of which more later.

Although 45:33 and Ascension are of different times (Ascension was recorded in 1965), one could argue that James Murphy’s 45:33 is in some modest way informed by, and indebted to, Coltrane’s free jazz lodestar—if it isn’t most obviously indebted to Manuel Gottsching’s electronic landmark E2-E4.

6:43 to 17:10 on 45:33 are epochal minutes, minutes that would underwrite my musical and personal excursions in 2007 and set a standard that I will doubtless look back on.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Sound and Sounds

An aberration on Spoon’s “The Ghost of You Lingers” sounds like a nullity of sound, a tear threatening to void the entire song. A closeted piano cycle, with its tight and odd chord progression, is foregrounded by layered vocals of Brit Daniel’s as echo, apparition, and spurned. “If you were here/Would you calm me down/You settled this part” an affectless Daniel’s offers while a spectral Daniel’s croons “All the strangers in town/Would know if you were here”. “The sleep fled from my eyes” he explains, “And I, know that I need some.” Completing the thought: it’s sleep that Daniel’s needs, and likely a lot of it.

“Ghost” is a small song, slight on musical elements (the somewhat sinister eight-note piano cycle; the falsetto as echo) though sonically pregnant in landscape. That the continued piano cycle remains static closes off any possibility for release. The layered vocals give the effect of oppositional selves, the plaints of lost love and the blank immediacies of present self.

Recall is a form of reconstruction here, and Daniel’s “If” is a conditional for a new possibility. He wants to try again, but is clearly in no shape to do so. There is the hint of paranoia, “All the strangers in town/Would know if you were here”, followed by an admission of instability, “Would you ease my mind?” A shouted “Come on!” seems more forceful than entreating.

So it’s likely the lingering ghost that’s threatening to void the song. That aberration appears in the final third of the song, a jarring distortion so outside of structure as to seem otherworldly, which, it should follow, is the point. Its a grinding and warping sound that repeats itself four other times, trailing off with Daniel’s invocation of “lingers”. The ghost is clearly a reconstruction from memory and haunts Daniel’s deteriorating mind.

Though the song creates a universe of Daniel’s mind on the first few listens, particularized and distant, his plaints are universal: that lost love and its remainder, the often deluded phantoms of memory we’re left to communicate with and ultimately exorcise, will rend us before they are dealt with. Or, put another way, must rend us before they are dealt with.

Monday, May 14, 2007


The Strawman officially turned three on April 18th, which is, in the fickleness and celerity of our current culture, not an insignificant accomplishment. Though, really, what is prideful in celebrating a blog, as dazzling as it is/was at times, left idle, sometimes for months, vacant and seemingly vanquished?

Well, if the absences were necessary and likely unavoidable; if the content produced lacked a certain amount of timeliness and topicality (not merely transcriptions of the apparently endless transcriptions of the apparently endless events, everywhere, that announce themselves as news and boast of their worthiness and therefore require, if not demand, our attention); if, importantly, there was a thoughtfulness and care to both the writing and the intellectual curiosity that provoked the writing (The Subject/The Occasion); and if, finally, it were not an imposition, a joyless task, merely an extension of the modern’s anxious busy work that evades peacefulness or solitude for want of excitement, for fear of loneliness, then pride can be found in small places.

I can admit, somewhat abashedly, that if the amount of writing on this blog, since its inception, has decreased, then, even if by small measures, the quality and interestingness of the content, and hopefully that of the writer, as well, has increased, or matured.

And yet, this blog’s initial mandate was to, as I recall, “pump out as much commentary as is humanly possible-- or at least until I run out of things to comment on”; and while that was a foolhardy scatological salvo into the blinds of the blogosphere, those were the heady and exuberant days when the transcription of the transcription wasn’t banal.

Indeed, in the three years that have elapsed there has been no shortage of available commentary, nearly all of it redundant. Why the commentary is all too available is obvious: the proliferation of New Media platforms (Blogs, Podcast, Vlogs, etc.) and the growing hegemony of content hosts as a means for this dissemination of comment (viz. You tube and Blogger, among others). The growth has been exponential, dizzying.

And while the commentary can neither be entirely discounted nor categorically merited, as a social phenomenon it is far too interesting and historically significant not to reckon with. En masse, a particular demographic from various industrialized countries (U.S, Canada, Europe, Japan) are externalizing thought. What would formally be considered diary entries, quiet ruminations for the writer’s own self-satisfaction (and likely for posterity) appear on the Internet as blog posts, a great number of which go unread.

To be sure, the fact that one’s work can go unread is one of the many appealing qualities of the blog. Additionally, the speed with which an errant thought on Thai cuisine or some effusive praise about The 40 Year Old Virgin or, likewise, a piercing meditation of Kant’s categorical imperatives can be put into writing, often ungrammatically (in both senses), and published online is head turning. The blog, it can be said, is impersonal and conversational in tone and operates on the contradictory assumption that it is both closed off from an audience and laid bear to the world; a diary. But diaries are written to be read, whether by the writer alone or the audience the writer imagines to be witnessing the act. Thus, much of the available comment, if its intentions are advertised or not, seeks some type of recognition.

+ + +

The push for human recognition, which finds its starting point in the Enlightenment with the individual’s autonomy from the monarch, and consequently the monarch’s separation from the state, placed individual liberty at the apex of political thought. Technology, for its part, has been nothing if not the extension of thought, an apparatus to realize in some efficient manner our mental desires and to relieve our material constraints. Scientific rationalism (the application of general science and technologies to the practical problems of modern daily life) and the individual’s political, and therefore private, autonomy have created the modern circumstances for an unprecedented new form of self-expression.

Though, naturally, the access to this form of self-expression is predicated on sociological and economic realities. Blogs are predominately written/accessed by the middleclass; their political and cultural sensibilities generally shape the normative landscape of the blogosphere. Much of the blogosphere is simply many, many over-loud opinions and comments that differ only in degree, but not in kind.

There are so many positions one can take about the Iraq War, and I’ve taken all of them. From pacifist, to Humanitarian interventionist, to the rouge Hawk, and finally, regrettably, to Apathy and Fatigue, the evolution has been a tiring one. The blogosphere, most particularly in its public affairs and political enclaves, requires a discipline of thought, of totalizing omni-reflective thought, both intellectually exhilarating and emotionally, and oftentimes physically, exhausting. One must have a position on everything. And quickly.

If journalism is the first draft of history, blogs are the notes, the kinetic sparks of history the Organism in movement. And no reliable or substantial critical analysis of society, of politics, of culture, can accommodate these demands, nor should it ever aspire to. Which is to say that, while the platforms for New Media are a considerably promising in the development of a participatory citizenship (albeit limited in accessibility), the attendant atmosphere of sound, fury, and celerity tends to be noxious to sober, unadorned thought.

Print publications like the New Yorker and The New Republic (Old Media) who publish long articles and essays are having to contend with the speed of the blogosphere. Going against conventional wisdom, The New Republic (recently purchased by Canadian media conglomerate CanWest) will now publish bi-weekly, on glossier paper, and double its content, which, in a time where speed carries more currency than thoughtful opinion, is welcomed.

+ + +

But isn’t this necessarily an excuse or rationalization for inactivity, for pointless navel gazing while crenels of the political and cultural events of our time pop furiously? Yes and No. The dynamism of New Media platforms greatly narrows the gap of event and coverage to near simultaneity. As quickly as it occurs, it is reported, chewed over, hastily contextualized and then re-contextualized. The media culture is ravenous, nearly cannibalistic, implicating all, consuming everything. An event is devoured and quickly excreted in almost light speed, never truly digested in the process.

This is where, I suspect, deliberative, dry analysis intercedes, to collect all of these undigested and indigestible parts of social material, as paleontologist do, and create an explicable if not entirely comprehensive narrative of the components, the players, and, often, the sheer randomness of past events. So, ultimately, it is not a zero-sum game where New Media will win simply by foot speed. Instead, Old and New media can act as adjuncts to each other while competing for the same audience and complimenting the desires of their readership.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

On Faces: Facebook/False Intimacies

(Some preliminary and still gestating thoughts)

I hate social networking. Only after much scorn and derision and coercion did I relent and place a profile on Facebook. Naturally it was under a fake name with no picture and no likelihood of activity. Not so, it seems. It began with a little gravity, things pulling themselves to me, disparate pieces of a life left behind shifting orbit, coming closer. People I had no intention or desire to ever talk to again started "poking" me, importuning, insisting that we be "friends", again. And who could deny a classmate from elementary school, who's heart is so cold, so closed off? Who could begrudge us that innocence, that naivety, of secret hand shakes, ashen legs, red faces?

No one. Not then. We were young then. But now? What are we after? No one is denied; everyone must enter your life again, and enter with a crooked smile and false bonhomie, or you will pay with psychic dread. Am I a bad person? Is my network of friends inclusive enough? If she is on his list and I am on his list, will she understand why she can't be on my list? And then thought collapse on itself, to the subject: why am I not on his or her list? What is my worth?

And suddenly your social currency is only validated, or not, when you check your inbox, your mind doing revolutions, needlessly, about people you may or may not ever see again, physically. But they will haunt you each time you visit your page, their words will bleed through your wall, offering intimacies to strangers, to you. This person you went to Univeristy with; this person you meet through an organization; this person who knows this person you know; this person who knows far too much about you.

Anything pushed to its extreme winds up having its opposite effect. When at first you wanted everyone closer, just at your finger tips, just in case, just to type those easy wittcisms and then return to more important things--you are now bound. Either be online and not reply; be busy and not reply; or disappear entirely. This is not a community of fellow travlers; this is the tyrany of the group.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Like a Doctor?

This typifies how incredibly derelict I was in following the goings-on in Canadian political life during my long absence. It would be embarrassing had I not had a credible excuse. Even so, I actually remember watching the hearings, surprised like everyone else to witness Zaccardelli's pitiful evasions, evasions so patently without sincerity, so wincingly lawyerly, it seemed obvious to most that Zaccerdelli got talking points from the PMO. And it wasn't as though the Harper government had to worry about culpability; the entire Arar mess took place under the previous Liberal Government, which led many to suspect that the Conservative government was more interested in saving face and not appearing weak by having to firing Zaccardelli.

But the ignorance Zaccardelli claimed to the details of the Arar arrest, rendition, and detention was both comical and pathetic. And since he changed his orginal statement, it's difficult to determine whether or not he was simply protecting himself or the organizational hierarchy of the RCMP.

Nonetheless, that it took $25,000 in taxpayers monies (of which I will contribute nothing in the fiscal year of 2007) to prepare Zaccardelli for the parlimentary hearing seems a tad excessive, considering all he was required to do, as Liberal MP Sue Barnes notes, was "tell the truth to Canadians." The $25,000 fee for consultation went to Ottawa PR firm McLoughlin Media, whose only comment on the matter reads thusly:

We're a private company, and part of what we do is to never talk about the people that we may or may not have worked with. It's inappropriate. It's like being a lawyer or a doctor.

I wonder what that's like? Being like a lawyer or a doctor...

Friday, March 09, 2007

Japan Times

Tokyo Sushi - Osaka Roll
Originally uploaded by Jon ..
I moved to Japan. That was around five months ago. Not that anyone really visited this site in the first place, but I felt it somewhat necessary after such a long absence to, at the very least, post a few sentences. First, I was without Internet for a two-month period. This, naturally, was soul crushing. It was also an incredibly contemplative time. I didn’t even bother reading the English dailies, nor did I bother to follow the news through that ingenious piece of technology that is my cell phone. The Democrats took Congress; Dion won the Liberal Leadership; Saddam was hung; a rare, prehistoric shark with florescent eyes was spotted in the Japan Sea. Bits and pieces of the outside world sooner or later emanated toward me., unbidden, without my active effort.

I began learning Japanese, to which, at this point, I can claim no mastery. I traveled. I read. I stood still. I did battle with Onsen . I lost spectacularly, each time resolving to begin again. And I did. And so I will.