Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday Video: Mogwai - 'Batcat'

Apparently tonight is some sort of pseudo-pagan festival, so here's a scary video for you.

Okay, it's not really that scary (this video "made out of an old 70's music video with a Danish dude doing a cover of Apache by The Shadows" for 'The Sun Smells Too Loud' is probably more unsettling) but it's a great song, and the video with its camp horror is pretty good too. Initially, I didn't think so, chiefly because I came in around the 2:00-minute mark and children dressed in folk clothing running around a forest to heavy guitars somehow reminds me of a lot of nu-metal and 'post-hardcore' videos from the early-to-mid 00s. Plus, as I had already discovered 'Batcat' as the awesome instrumental post-rock/metal track that it is, I didn't feel like it needed visual exposition. There's a self-contained quality to the music - like that of Slint - that fills up your headphones with sound that is both curiously mechanical and organic.

However, the video has plenty of technical and aesthetic merit to it, creating a gloomy environment (aesthetic, but perhaps not very creative), and the glistening, visceral image of the 'batcat' at the end is quite impressive. Having seen the full thing, the opening shot of the girl's hooded face, with a very painterly effect, is brilliant - as is the foreshadowing juxtaposition of the visceral, sci-fi cliche of pulsating, inhuman flesh. Man, this rocks!

More on this (and Slint) later:

Monday, October 27, 2008

Fight Like Apes - 'Jake Summers' and 'Lend Me Your Face' 7"s (+ videos)

'Lend Me Your Face'

'Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues'

These are the two 7" single releases featuring the re-recorded tracks from Fight Like Apes first EP, How Am I Supposed To Kill You When You Have All The Guns?, released along with the debut album, Fight Like Apes and the Mystery of the Golden Medallion. To be honest, the re-recorded versions (produced by John Goodmanson, who claims to "make records sound good by default") are pretty faithful to the originals, although maybe that's because I'm well used to them by now. The originals, particularly 'Lend Me Your Face', were what got me into the band in the first place, via the radio.

On the flip sides are unreleased instrumental track, 'Corey Pop' and the recorded version of their live stalwart, and Mclusky cover, 'Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues'. The first b-side is actually very good, in a catchy synth ditty kind of way. I'm pretty sure I remember it being played during one of their sets towards the end of last year or earlier this year, and it possibly feeds into the structure of some of the new songs on the album.

'Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues' I have, of course, a completely biased attitude towards. I was a Mclusky fan before I was a Fight Like Apes fan, and I'm still a fan of both, plus Future of the Left and Shooting at Unarmed Men (album of the year!). Honestly, I think it's more than equal to the original (which has always been, and will continue to be, utterly awesome). Unfortunately some folks over at the Future of the Left message boards are very unhappy with the cover - and also with the fact that the band were touring with the Ting Tings. I mean, they're not the most profound indie group ever (the Ting Tings, that is, not Fight Like Apes.... they're way deep in a superficial, b-movie kind of way) but there are plenty worse to be listening to so, sheesh, way to be elitist. The criticism of 'no bass' is pretty stupid, too.

Anyway, I'm quite excited to see Future of the Left upstairs at Whelans on November 14th. They're flogging a live album on the tour, and their live show was pretty impressive the last time round, even if I'm not a fan of all the parts of their music.

Future of the Left 7"s (from this previous post)

Fight Like Apes 7"s (from this post)

'Lend Me Your Face' (old version)

'Jake Summers' (new version)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Grails - Doomsdayer's Holiday

'Reincarnation Blues' (Edit)

Temporary Residence Limited Grails "Doomsdayer's Holiday" TRR144

"Following up last year's Burning Off Impurities and their recent Take Refuge In Clean Living EP, Grails return with their darkest, heaviest record yet. Written and recorded over the last 18 months, Doomsdayer's Holiday delivers on the promises made by their previous albums, taking equal pride in smoky psychedelics and mountain-ascending riffs. With Faust, Earth and Sunn O))) collaborators acting as engineers - not to mention drummer Emil Amos having recently become the new other half of Om - Grails' avant-metal leanings are evident as always. But Doomsdayer's Holiday finds their already-broad palette continually expanding with 70s European film noir and cosmic free jazz explorations complimenting the Middle Eastern psychedelic folk-metal the group is already known for. After a wildly prolific three-year streak that saw the band ceaselessly pushing forward, Grails have finally made an album that pushes back."


1. sticker

2. reverse of album cover

3. record playing on turntable

4. (below) gold coloured record on sleeve

So after a short delay when the records were shipped to TRL on (horror!) ordinary black vinyl, and had to be repressed (anyone know if vinyl can be melted down and recycled into new records, or are there just a bunch of extra black Grails records out there?), Doomsdayer's Holiday arrived on my doorstep this week. Although having had the album in mp3 for the best part of a month previous, often receiving the physical product of a record (either CD or vinyl, really) is the catalyst for really appreciating an album.

Clocking in at just over 37 minutes, Doomsdayer's Holiday marks a separation from the sprawling wonder of Burning Off Impurities, and a more focused album. Here are seven songs you could sit down and listen to, in a reasonable amount of time. The sound is more direct, if a little murkier, as though the band's "avant-metal leanings" have been compressed into more cogent bursts. But around the edges of the tracks there is still the spaciousness of their post-rock side, their experimentation.

The opening title track serves as a hazy, groovy introduction to the album, a dissolute wash of cymbals and electronics coalescing around a mean bass riff and wandering into psychedelic bluesy guitar. It's attempting to be several things at once, and succeeding; "smoky psychedelics and mountain-ascending riffs" with heavily-layered post-rock structures, and a deft touch in assembling melodies.

The album's twin 'blues' songs, one on either side, 'Reincarnation Blues' and 'Predestination Blues', are what the record coheres around. Combining the surf-like riffage from Take Refuge In Clean Living with the crashing, dense heaviness of Burning Off Impurities, they are soaked in the Easternness of those preceding records. 'Predestination Blues' in particular is as close as Doomsdayer's Holiday gets to a repeat of the stunning 'Take Refuge' from less than half a year ago, while 'Reincarnation Blues' feeds back into the tension between looseness and immediacy that characterised Burning Off Impurities.

While Grails seem to work with an ever-expanding palette of influences, the "70s European film noir and cosmic free jazz explorations" might stretch credulity somewhat. The more ambient tracks 'Immediate Mate' (mixed separately by Emil Amos) and 'X-Contamination' are ambiguous melanges of disparate elements from the rest of the album, that don't seem to me to add hugely to the whole. However, my two solid favourites from the album at the moment are the cinematic pairing of the slow-burning, understated 'The Natural Man', on the first side, and the long closing track on the second, 'Acid Rain'.

Like the quieter tracks from Burnng Off Impurities such as 'Drawn Curtains' and 'Outer Banks', or the toned down 'Clean Living' from Take Refuge, they channel a certain post-rock beauty and expressiveness all of their own when compared with their louder counterparts. 'The Natural Man' wanders through pastoral, verdant chords and spiralling melodies, while 'Acid Rain' crafts a lush, pacific world of surf melodies and jazzy rhythms, disintegrating into pulsing electronics and re-emerging cyclically into tender clarity.

I'd hesitate to place Doomsdayer's Holiday above Burning Off Impurities - TRL get it right when they describe the latter as "the kind of sprawling masterpiece that you savor for years before passing it on to your younger brother so he can repeat the process" (unfortunately I'm an only child) - but it has just as much, if not more, going for it. They might equally have got it wrong when they said Burning Off Impurities was "very likely the closest Grails will ever get to making a classic rock record", because here they are, a year or so later, with a solid (and single) LP of, if not quite rock music, then something a few steps higher up the ladder. Doomsdayer's Holiday is a great post-rock record, full of depth and soul, hard work and mindfulness.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

... Hook - A Mixtape

1. Fucked Up - 'No Epiphany', The Chemistry of Common Life

2. Mogwai - 'The Sun Smells Too Loud', The Hawk is Howling

3. Grails - 'Take Refuge', Take Refuge In Clean Living

4. Envy - 'Life Caught In The Rain', Envy/Jesu Split EP

5. Fight Like Apes, 'Something Global' (Edit), Something Global EP (Fight Like Apes and the Mystery of the Golden Medallion LP)


The title comes indirectly from a line in the Ramones song 'Chinese Rock', "all my best things are in hock" from End of the Century.

This mixtape comes from a selection of songs that have grabbed my attention in the last while, some on albums and in contexts where you'd expect a pop hook, and some that are more unexpected. The first two are from records (and artists) that are new to the blog, the latest releases from Fucked Up and Mogwai. The next two tracks from Grails and Envy have been mentioned, in some detail, before; and the particular records have both been superseded, though not necessarily surpassed, by newer releases. The final song - an obvious choice from an Irish perspective - has been knocking around for quite a few months now, with an EP/single and an album release behind it, plus a lot of local alternative radio play.

It took a couple of specific recommendations and a few weeks of procrastination before I went and checked out Fucked Up's latest album. I'm not too familiar with the band - who played Dublin a few weeks ago without my attendance - but I've always been vaguely aware of their experimental punk/hardcore aims. The Chemistry of Common Life is a good punk albums with plenty interesting flourishes, and although the singer's voice keeps reminding me of the Dropkick Murphys and other traditional hardcore bands that I stopped listening to years ago, it does seem like quality stuff. 'No Epiphany' is the track featured on the A.V. Club review (Grade: A), and the choice is clear to me as it was one of the songs in particular that caught my attention while walking around with this album. A stretching, soaring guitar hook and female backing vocals that extend quite naturally from a relatively orthodox melodic hardcore song, 'No Epiphany' is accessible and evocative. Experimental maybe, but there is a Bad Religion song of almost the same name, and essentially the same subject matter, that is just as good to listen to...

The new Mogwai album was introduced with this song as a taster, and as a non-Mogwai fan it was enough to get me interested or even excited about its release. Well, I have nothing in particular against the band, but an experimentation with their early work - yes, Young Team - left me cold. 'The Sun Smells Too Loud', on the other hand, is fascinating. It's a pop hook for the rest of the album that isn't in fact too similar to it, but it stands up on its own as well. There's that understated riff that lulls it way through all the song, and a constellation of other melodies and rhythms occuring alongside it. This is instrumental post-rock as it should be - exciting.

I've been banging on about this song for a while, and for that I make no apologies. 'Take Refuge' is Grails at their monumental, subtly crafted best. Every moment of this song swings, and its progression through climb-up, crescendo, climb-down, "Enrico Morriconi-esque" interlude, and reprise is a beautiful arc of musical composition. At its centre is a trademark Eastern/surf-rock riff, shaped and layered to perfection - though the Grails trademark has never been particulary static. The latest album (expect another post on it soon) Doomsdayer's Holiday continues with the surf-rock style, bearing down on it with even more spaghetti Easternness, but with a tighter and more focused sound overall than that of Burning Off Impurities.

Envy's split with Jesu is probably the more interesting piece of work of the two that they have produced this year, not least because the songs they have paired with Jesu have been particularly diverse. 'Life Caught In The Rain' is the poppiest song the band have ever written, but it's mostly an accent that the band applies to the ordinary post-rock structure of their songs. The unlikely hook comes from a guitar riff inserted in the space of the scream-your-head-off crescendo, but instead of deadening the song it gives it a new sense of energy and emphasises the melodic vibrancy of Envy's sound. Nothing I've heard this year, on their split with Jesu or with Thursday (the jury's still out on the whole idea of that one...), is going to fully satisfy the traditionalists amongst the Envy fans, but they're all still great songs.

"Hooks are for wimps/and choruses are for gays"

'Something Global' ("/...something real") is the rocking lead single from the Fight Like Apes debut album, and it really had to be included here for its apt subject matter, and because it's rather obviously meant to be a catchy pop song - of sorts. At one stage I had the full post-modern irony of the lyrics and the song structure all worked out but I've forgotten it now, so all I'll say is that it makes for a good encore.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sunday Video: Grails - Doomsdayer's Holiday, a Commercial

A while ago I did this post on the new Grails album, Doomsdayer's Holiday, with some tracks and visuals from their previous two releases, Take Refuge In Clean Living and Burning Off Impurities. In the meantime, a) my copy of the new double LP hasn't arrived yet - although I did manage to spend €27 (!) on the Take Refuge LP in Tower - b) I found, without much difficulty, mp3s of Doomsdayer's Holiday and c) Temporary Residence Limited produced a commercial (above) for said album, including Chevy Chase dressed as a roller-skating rabbi in the 1985 film Fletch and a naked snake charmer with, at one point, '666' written across her chest.

So, eh, not very commercial.

As for b), it wasn't where I found it originally, but you can download the album to try it out at Worship and Tribute, a blog which does a slow but steady line in good post-rock/-hardcore/etc. albums to download. The write-up is interesting, because I don't agree with it wholly:

"Grails' 2004 album Redlight ruled in all possible ways. Their 2007 album Burning Off Impurities did not. They shifted from being a concise post-rock band to a psychedelic jam band that tossed in Eastern instrumentation all over the place. Short of assuming Grails went on a pilgrimage to India and met Ravi Shankar, I'll just say their musical direction changed. Doomsdayer's Holiday does something to reconcile those two worlds. The Eastern influences and jamminess are no longer endless and open-ended and as a result the songs have regained organization and arc. This album comes highly recommended for fans of post-rock, classic rock, or prog looking for something very different."

From listening to it these past few weeks, I don't think that Doomsdayer's Holiday is necessarily better than Burning Off Impurities. The latter would be one of my albums of 2007, other than that I only really found out about it when blend77 drew up his best of 2007 list this February. I've gone back and explored the earlier Grails sound (Redlight and Burden of Hope) and while it's very good, it's the more recent work which attracts me the most.

Clearly if Doomsdayer's Holiday is a reconciliation of those two styles, then I'm coming from the other page. And yet there are some frustatingly long moments in the album where it seems to lose the run of itself, and dissolve into electronic nothingness. Not so much as to detract severely from the rest of the album, but enough for me to be slightly reserved about the release. It'll still probably be in my best-of list at the end of the year, though.

For a), the reason that the LP is so expensive is because it comes in a gatefold cover with a weird set of photo-montages. I'm not sure it's totally worth it - the 'Stoned at the Taj Again' picture is pretty cool, but it's no levitating, lute-playing Jesus from Burning Off Impurities - for that money, but side B does have two of probably the best post-rock songs of the year: 'Take Refuge' and 'Clean Living', which I really wanted to have on vinyl.

For c), I do wonder sometimes just what Grails are supposed to be all about. That mixture of Western irony, Eastern spiritualism, mysticism, kitsch, humour and seriousness. And then I realise it doesn't really matter, that it's just a post-whatever combination of meaning on several levels. It makes for good videos, anyway.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bruce Springsteen vs. Suicide - 'Dream Baby Dream', Nebraska

Bruce Springsteen, 'Dream Baby Dream' - cover recorded live for the Devils and Dust solo tour, 2005, and originally released on Suicide - Suicide, 1980. (Long file, give it time to load)


'State Trooper' from Nebraska, 1982.

'Atlantic City' from Nebraska, 1982.

Dream Baby Dream 10" (art/cover photograph - 'Stars' by Edward Mapplethorpe, 1994)

Nebraska LP (second-hand copy)

"To mark Alan Vega's 70th birthday, blastfirstpetite is releasing monthly limited-edition 10-inch vinyl singles featuring versions of Suicide songs, starting this month with Bruce Springsteen's cover of Dream Baby Dream.


Who are Suicide? Marty Rev and Alan Vega - two Jewish New Yorkers who founded the band after they met in 1971. Vega says: "We were angry and we wanted to wake people up"

Why are they important? Suicide had a punk-style attitude and violent edge to their music that predated the Sex Pistols by several years. They invented synthesiser rock, paving the way for a host of '80s and '90s electro-pop bands

Who have they influenced? Who haven't they influenced? Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, New Order and Pet Shop Boys would all probably never have existed without Suicide. U2, REM, Radiohead, and even Bruce Springsteen claim them as heroes...

(from - pretty much by accident - the Jewish Chronicle, 'Suicide: How the godfathers of punk kept the faith')

...Vega and Rev became part of a music New York scene densely populated with Jews, including Joey Ramone, Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group, Richard Hell of the Voidoids and Chris Stein of Blondie.

Vega even jokingly refers to the legendary club CBGBs where all those bands played as "one big synagogue".

As Suicide, they created a new type of electronic rock'n'roll - they were a sci-fi Sex Pistols, before the Pistols existed. The problem was, nobody knew what to make of them or their guitar-, bass- and drums-free line-up. In fact, they were the prototype synth-duo, the model for Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys and the rest, with the lugubrious keyboardist and gregarious frontman.

"If we were the future, it was a future that nobody wanted," admits Rev, who was once approached by the Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren to form a boy-girl outfit with Blondie's Debbie Harry. "There was nothing about us that was familiar."

Rev is as thoughtful as Suicide's music is visceral. Of his religious beliefs, he says: "I can't box myself into any one system of practice or ritualised thought for very long." And he describes his upbringing as "social-oriented humanitarianism; non-religious bordering on agnostic". He admits, however, that he later "studied in-depth ancient Hebrew texts for a period of years". He concedes that he "can't imagine living in a world where there isn't a God". He admires non-believers but cannot quite make that leap himself. "Having that sense of awe about the universe, which is what religion is to me, I wonder how they can live without that.

It's like love - it doesn't have to be real or true, but to live without it... It's hard enough to get up in the morning as it is."

Vega is similarly ambivalent. He alludes to the "miraculous" nature of his career with Suicide and fateful meeting with Rev, begging the question - does he believe in a higher power?

"I distrust the name ‘God' but, yes, I do believe in a higher power," he says. He adds that he shares the rationalist stance of Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish philosopher and "pantheist theologian". "God is in all of us," he says, before deciding: "There is an immense power. There has to be."

After years of changing his back-story, telling journalists his mother was Catholic, he is finally proud of his roots. "I made that up to fuel the myth, because really, my whole life has been a myth," he says. Now he can come clean. "It's funny, but I'll never stop feeling Jewish, no matter how much I might talk my way out of it.

I'm very proud to be part of this tradition. It's brought me a lot of knowledge."

He is equally proud of Suicide and flattered by the attention of musician-fans - artists as varied as Springsteen, Nick Cave, Primal Scream and Julian Cope are lined up to release cover versions of Suicide classics every month from now until 2010. Even Amy Winehouse is apparently keen to get involved.

"There's an authenticity to our music," he considers. "It's country 'n' eastern music, or New York City blues. I sometimes call it ‘Two Jews' Blues'. Really, though, we're our own category. People always say: ‘You're too much in the future.' And I tell them: ‘No, you're too much in the past.'"

Blast first (petite) is a contemporary reincarnation of Blast First, a sublabel of Mute Records founded in 1985 by Paul Smith, which released records by Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Suicide and many more. The name came from the journal of the Vorticist modern art movement, BLAST, published in 1914 for the first of only two issues, but containing the Vorticist manifesto and considered a seminal text of 20th century Modernism.

The Alan Vega 70th Birthday Limited Edition EP series continues monthly (and when the vinyl sells out, as the Springsteen is supposed to have, you can buy it as a download from the site) with a whole bunch of different artists - amongst others, The Horrors and 'Shadazz' this month, Lydia Lunch and 'Frankie Teardrop' in November, Sunn0)))/Pansonic with 'Che' in January, and Grinderman, Liars, Spiritualised and Gavin Friday listed for later, as yet unnamed, versions.

If you haven't heard Suicide before, you're seriously missing out. It's been years since I first heard the first self-titled album from 1977, and then the more recent works including 2002's American Supreme (previous post on it here) and 1992's Why Be Blue?, but I have found few bands as novel and engaging. Suicide's second album, also self-titled, was released a couple of years after the first and doesn't sound a huge lot different, though it's not just a straight repetition either. To be honest, I don't like it as much as either the first self-titled or American Supreme, although it has got some undeniably great pop songs on it, of which 'Dream Baby Dream' is just one.

Their minimalism and their subversion of pop music (though of course from Suicide's point of view, it was the rest of the world which - before and after punk - had degraded the core of rock and roll, not them) don't quite seem like the qualities which would have attracted Bruce Springsteen, the Boss of extragavant, if soulful, rock and roll. However, they did, and he is obviously still their one of their biggest, and best-known, fans. (In a similar fashion, Joan Jett is a big fan of Lungfish.)

This fandom is most evident on Springsteen's most stripped-back, bleakest album, Nebraska. It was recorded as, and eventually released from, a four-track cassete tape demo - after finding that studio recordings with the E Street Band failed to capture the eerie, sharply emotional sound of the solo demo recordings. While the whole album is consequently minimalist by comparison with his other works (excepting other stripped-down, folk-influenced albums The Ghost of Tom Joad and the recent Devils and Dust), 'State Trooper' forms a particular homage to the sound of Suicide. In a previous post on this album, I wrote:

"I've seen this album described, half-jokingly, as Springsteen's emo record. If you've already heard Nebraska, you might just understand that. Emo like Moss Icon at their most repetitively circular and dirge-like, perhaps, or Hoover in one of their most pyschologically anguished ultra-quiet build-ups. You see, Bruce brings a lot of emotion to this recording, but it's not the heart-on-sleeve, slightly melancholy exuberance of Born to Run - instead, it's a catalogue of despair and brooding, incipient sadness. Often, it's not merely 'eerily' quiet, it's goddamn scarily quiet.

In fact, there's a different niche of punk that this album takes its influence: Suicide. Springsteen was a big fan of the no-wave New York minimalist duo, and presumably still is, since they continue to put out some very good stuff. Not only is their a sonic affinity audible in the sparse, empty arrangement of the album as whole, but one song - 'State Trooper' - is a direct homage to classic '77 Suicide. The same hollowed-out motorycle-engine beats, the same tense vocal delivery. It's not quite as terrifying as 'Frankie Teardrop', but it comes close."

Nebraska - as with most if not all Springsteen - is pure Americana, but all the more so for its unorthodox references to Suicide's style of proto-, electro- and post-punk. It's real American-dream-gone-wrong stuff, expressed in the language and features of that great society, and - just as Suicide took the idea of rock and roll and reconstructed it in a new, simultaneously harsh and beautiful mechanical medium - Nebraska survives on the pre-existence of its folk paradigm, mediated through Springsteen's then rapidly establishing style.

'Atlantic City', although also one of my favourites from the album, is included above mostly just to show what is probably only the most rocking song on the album, and so as an indication of just how suppressed the energy is on Nebraska. In fact, the opening title track is heartbreaking, evoking the coldness and gloom of the cover picture and the 'badlands' of the northern Midwest (though typically the other two tracks here revert to talking about Jersey). 'Johnny 99' and 'Highway Patrolman', like 'State Trooper', swing between inert sadness and active tension; and while 'Open All Night' injects some anomalous energy with the use of an electric rather than acoustic guitar, 'Used Cars', 'My Fathers House' and 'Mansion on the Hill' are all steeped in melancholy. Album closer 'Reason to Believe' at least offers somewhat of a rousing conclusion:

"at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe"

Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska (1982)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday Video - Tom Waits, 'Way Down in the Hole'

This clip is from Tom Waits's Big Time, "part concert movie, part play, with elements taken from the Franks Wild Years [which originally featured 'Way Down in the Hole'] play". I don't know if you could find a better way to the present this song (other than perhaps the context below), it's just so physical, dramatic and searingly bluesy. Or jazz-rock, whatever way you want to express it. You can certainly see why they chose this song for the Wire.

As I've mentioned previously, Tom Waits and Nick Cave are both artists which I really like but have never really felt the need to stretch my collection of their work beyond one or two albums. I'm not sure whether that's because I don't think there's enough variety in their work (assuredly untrue, and the standard comment of anyone who doesn't understand any artist) or whether I'm perplexed as to which albums to move onto (no doubt people could give me plenty of suggestions), or maybe it's because I really just can be happy with Blood Money, a bit of Swordfishtrombones, and the opening sequence of every episode of the Wire -

(this is the title sequence from the second season of the Wire - now showing in Ireland on Channel 6, Thursdays at 9.35 - which is the season that features the original Waits version rather than a cover.)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Frankfurt School vs. the Culture Industry

á la Lex Dexter:

"….More generally, the Frankfurt theorists contended that, quite contrary to the optimism of such liberal-pluralists as Edward Shils, the media made the world of serious culture made widely accessible only at the price of depriving it of its critical substance. For the media, by bringing culture into everyday life, wrenched it from the tradition which had guaranteed it its separateness just as the techniques of mass reproduction deprived the work of art the ‘aura’ of its uniqueness on which alone its critical function could be predicated. Marcuse argues the point with force and clarity:

The neo-conservative critics of leftists critics of mass culture ridicule the protest against Bach as background music in the kitchen, against Plato and Hegel, Shelley and Baudelaire, Marx and Freud in the drugstore. Instead, they insist on recognition of the fact that the classics have left the mausoleum and come to life again, that people are just so much more educated. True, but coming to life as classics, they come to life as other than themselves; they are deprived of their antagonistic force, of the estrangement which was the very dimension of their truth. The intent and function of these works have thus fundamentally changed. If they once stood in contradiction to the status quo, this contradiction is now flattened out. (Marcuse, 1970, p. 64)

It is this aspect of the Frankfurt critique which has been taken up most frequently by cultural theorists on the left. In particular, mention should be made of Walter Benjamin who argued that the development of techniques permitting the reproduction of works of art on a limitless scale, depriving them of their ‘aura’, the uniqueness of their singular existence, had created the technical preconditions whereby art, in being freed from the sacredness of its singular presence, was able to enter the domain of politics in a form in which it could be both produced and appropriated by the masses (Benjamin, 1970).

This was decidedly not the perspective of the Frankfurt theorists. Art, they argued, could fulfil its oppositional function only by refusing any compromise with reality. But, by the same token, it was thereby unable to have any impact on the consciousness of those whose minds are forged in the midst of a compromised reality. If art did compromise so that it might be made available to the masses it would, by the same token, lose its oppositional value. Adorno summarised this dilemma as follows:

The effect that they [works of art] would wish to have is at present absent, and they suffer from that absence greatly; but as soon as they attempt to attain that effect by accommodating themselves to prevailing needs, they deprive men of precisely that which they could.. give them. (Cited in Slater, 1977)

- Tony Bennett, p. 45 (1982) "Theories of the media, theories of society" in Gurevitch, M. et al Culture, Society and the Media (London: Meuthen). Emboldens are my own.

(0.) Punk set out to be, or should have achieved the status of, the ultimate oppositional form of art, and post-punk was a recognition of the failure of that agenda. Or that Adorno’s remark could be used as a brief history, rise and fall, of punk rock in the 20th century.

In this previous post I mentioned Nicholas Rombes's statement in his essay on the Ramones' first album for the 33 1/3rd series of music books that “Ramones is either the last great modern record, or the first great postmodern one”, and then I drew a comparison to ex-Mclusky Shooting at Unarmed Men's Triptych from this year. Postmodernism is a tricky subject (= can be a load of shite), but a valid one nevertheless, and absolutely crucial to understanding the (current) relationship between art and reality.

1. The Wire as a realist, but not realistic, show. This was dealt with I think somewhere on Heaven and Here, and it's important to use in answering the (minority) critical backlash to what is seen as a sycophantic consensus on the Wire's status as televisual art and its literary honesty. While the Wire reflects reality - in multiple levels of political, economic and social injustice - it does this in the process of producing not a documentary, but a drama and a novelistic work of art.

2. Lungfish as an obscurantist band. If they are indeed separate from the punk/post-punk/hardcore/post-hardcore division of intellectual labour in Western alternative music, and really represent a rock group that transcends even the concept of transcendence in rock music; does this explain why the metaphysical, utterly vague yet heavily image-centred lyrics and repetitive, reproduced sound expresses so simply a certain rawness and uncompromising reality of their art?

3. Shooting at Unarmed Men as a postmodern take on the ‘reality’ of punk rock. Triptych takes layers of garage punk rock and post-punk experimentalism, the directness, urgency of lo-fi and the expansiveness, ambience of post-rock; and it melds them all into a three-part album which expresses both the archaic coherence of the 'album' or record and the fragmentation of progressive art after the modern era. Triptych may be the most exciting punk rock album I have heard this year, and the most novel but also the most rooted in the fluid, constructed truth of that musical genre. The oppositional art in the postmodern world of politics.

Shooting at Unarmed Men - 'The Cock-A-Doodle-Doo of Democracy'

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Best TV Show Ever

"Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland take one more ride on the Jameson/Glenlivet Express" by Steve Lieber, Periscope Studios, series of 5.

Just watched the final episode of the Wire last Monday night. Wow.

If by some bizarre chance you're actually watching it by some even slower method than I was, don't worry, I won't give any of the plot away. Just wow. And disappointment, I guess, that's it's over.

Luckily, our other TV channel specialising in American drama, Channel 6, will keep the jones at bay by continuing this Thursday with the second series (actually one of the best) immediately after finishing its run of the first season, concurrent with TG4's showing of the final one.

And all this with the basic, non-digital cable package. In fact, a real wire-related accident threw me temporarily back to terrestrial, four-channel land but I was still able to continue watching the final season on TG4 because it’s terrestrial too.

I wasn't able to keep up with the internet, of course, or rather I wasn't really bothered (still haven't seen Generation Kill yet. Obviously, I know that I should. But I don't torrent, either). However, this means there's a wealth of commentary to discover, post hoc, on the Wire. Meanwhile, there's still Mad Men and Friday Night Lights showing on the TV.

So far, discovering the commentary has meant working back through the most excellent, in both style and content, blog Heaven and Here. Before S5's arrival on TG4, I did succumb to reading one of the very last posts, an interesting (and, in the light of actually seeing the episode, intriguing) discussion on the role of Jewish ethnicity in the character of Maurice Levy. Among the other comments, however, there was a description of the finale - don't worry, in the abstract - as:

"Like one of those scenes in a Tarantino where everyone has their guns on each other. Only instead of everyone dying, in this one, everyone cuts a different deal"

So This Is How It Ends (#59) [comment]

Importantly, I think the end of the Wire - and not just in the finale, but also in the several episodes leading up to it - successfully resolved the central conceit of the season, which had threatened to overwhelm the show with its outlandishness. That said, it equally importantly left some consequent moral dilemmas unresolved, as did Hamsterdam before it in S3, itself recognised in the brief encounter between Colvin and Carcetti at the end of this season.


When it comes to deciding the best TV show of the last century, that is to the say the smaller period of it which saw the creation, transformation and global establishment of the medium, it probably would have to be the Simpsons. For its inherent quality just as much as for its sheer cultural impact. Or for argument's sake, at least.

Trumping that, and setting the bar suitably high for the rest of this century, is the Wire. Hence I think the amalgamation above is very appropriate. Realistically, however, the Wire had more of the level of humour of Family Guy and the complexity and irony of South Park. The Wire was a show very much of a post-Simpsons world, short-to-nonexistent though the gap in time between them may have been.

(I just found out there's an upcoming Simpsons episode where Homer and Grandpa visit Ireland and buy a pub. Elsewhere I hear that Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (he of the Frames, the both from the film Once) will appear in the episode. The fact that it references the smoking ban I suppose could be interesting, but man, they're as gimmicky as hell now. Maybe post-Simpsons world is just wishful thinking?)


One of my favourite scenes from the Wire was from the third season, where the cop McNulty arrives a high-class DC political fundraiser and, naturally, heads straight for the bar:

McNulty: Jameson's, please.

Bartender: Bushmills alright?

McNulty: Bushmills?! That's Protestant whisky...

Bartender(glibly): The price is right, ain't it?

In the context of the Wire, this is either a) a throwaway gag, a trivial aside, b) a wry comment on ethnic loyalties and the economic imperative of 'the game' or c) both.

I'd like to think that I take a non-sectarian, non-denominational approach to my whiskeys, but Bushmills actually does have the better taste, in my opinion. 'Black Bush', in particular. Not having ventured very far into the world of single malts, the best taste of all the ordinary types. And in addition, Bushmills > Jameson's > Jack Daniels. As much as I like the Southern (US) grá for rye whiskey, particularly in the archetypal beardcore attitudes of Hot Water Music, I don't think much of the flavour compared with good ol' Irish barley malt.

Jameson's, by the way, is from Cork, the republican heartland of Ireland, while Bushmills is from a town of the same name (and twinned with Louisville, KY) in Antrim in what is now Northern Ireland. I found this (American) St. Patrick's Day article on the rivalry between the two whiskeys, which references the Wire scene. According to it, Jameson's outsells Bushmills by 3 to 1 in the States. Jameson's was established in 1780, and (now) produced "in the Catholic-rich cities of Cork and Dublin". Bushmill's, is "by contrast... distilled in Protestant-heavy Northern Ireland, has a Protestant following. Never mind that until a few years ago, both brands were owned by the same conglomerate, Pernod Ricard of France". Actually, Protestant-heavy is partly an understatement: Bushmills itself - that is, the town - is 97% Protestant, while on the other hand to describe Northern Ireland as "Protestant-heavy" is a bit reductionist with regards to the majority-minority conflict there (of course, it is just an article about whiskey.)

Even better, however - and wonderfully ironic - the same Google search turns up an A-Z of what to do in Coleraine borough with, under Art Galleries, in Bushmills, a gallery run by "James McNulty"! Sweet... guess that should mean a road trip coming up to the town of Bushmills, via the village of Emo, Co. Laois...

Friday, October 3, 2008

Election for Nerds Special!

Click the picture to enlarge. Further explanation (kinda technical) added below.

I've been wanting to do this for a while...

From left to right is the distribution of Hardcore for Nerds readers from the United States, in terms of the percentage of the readership (via Google Analytics) from each state, relative to its percentage of the population overall. It is expressed in terms of % difference: for example, New York on the extreme left makes up 6.31% of the US population and 10.31% of visits to this blog from the US, hence a percentage point difference of almost exactly (+)4%.

The clear columns going up and down are the distribution of red (down) and blue (up) states, according to as of today [Friday Oct. 3rd]. So while Florida (second from the extreme right) may switch to a red state in the end, Alaska on the left is not realistically going to switch to blue. You can adjust the exact data points according to whatever predictions you follow, but the overall trend is clear.

And also, I suppose, fairly obvious to begin with. However, this is the statistical proof* that Hardcore for Nerds is a blue state blog...

* as a politics student and someone who is generally very good at mathematics, I absolutely do not stand over the validity of this exercise in any way.

EXPLANATION: Basically this graph shows a strong correlation between whether a state has above or below average readership of the blog (as against its share of the national population) and whether it is a 'red' or 'blue' state in current electoral terms. (Blue for Democratic - Obama - and red for Republican - McCain, incidentally in complete reversion of the traditional British-Irish/European political scheme, which assigns blue for conservative and red for left-wing or socialist)

The switch from blue to red occurs almost exactly with the point that readership drops from exactly average (no difference between % of readership and % of population) to below average. With the exception of Alaska, all the above-average readership states are blue, leading to the statement above.

On the below-average side, it's a little bit more complicated. Some of them, like Delaware and (I guess) Washington, are firmly in the blue camp. Others are more easily identified as swing states: Ohio, Michigan, Florida and New Mexico.

Please note that the order of the states on the graph is in decreasing positive (and then increasing negative) magnitude of difference between % of readership and % of population. They are not adjusted for population. So a large magnitude of difference does not necessarily represent a huge disparity of readership; rather it represents a relative measure, a function of a) the population size and b) the actual disparity of readership per head.

Therefore the fact of whether a state is close or far away from the centre of the graph (low % difference) changes its significance according to where the state stands in terms of its population size. States that are large should be closer to the edges - if they are not, then they have a more average level of readership than those that are; and small states should be in the centre; if they are not, then they have a high disparity (for example Connecticut, which probably has a lot to do with this blog.)

For bonus marks, you can tell me why this means, statistically speaking, that the three swing states on the far right could be expected to be in that position, or - to phrase the question differently, and a slight hint - why the states in that position could be expected to be (important) swing ones?

A few more notes:

Population data from Wikipedia, of course.

US readership comprises 48% of Hardcore for Nerds readership during the period July 25th-October 2nd, with a total of 7,297 visits.

'Not stated' made up 1.45% of visits, while other US territories make up 1.44% of the total population.