All posts by Todd Totale

In Memoriam: The Iowa Caucus 1972-2020

We’ve now officially begun another election year cycle, a testament to the privileges of our nation, but one that reflects an increasingly polarized climate where many voters have already cashed out on our great American Experiment. The manner in which we nominate Presidential candidates continues to evolve and mirror the reality of our country–for better or worse–while allowing a much needed discussion about the process itself.

Many voices from this self-reflection wonder if having two small and predominately white states (Iowa and New Hampshire) remains the best first-step for this effort, particularly when much of the divide in America is rooted in the lack of tolerance toward one another. Should we continue to allow two states that don’t accurately represent the demographics of our country the privilege of determining a suitable voice for this critically important effort?

Front and center was the 2020 Iowa caucus. The “first in the nation” state proved to be a complete shit show, mired in chaos from the ineptitude of Iowa Democratic Party leadership, the lack of effective training for local party volunteers assigned with the task of running their precincts and the failure of a smart phone reporting app that was rushed-to-launch days before the caucus itself.

When the dust settled and Iowa was still not any closer to providing the rest of the country with results days after the caucus ended, the calls to initiate changes to the process began ringing with more intensity and with greater resolve.

How was Iowa blessed with their first in the nation status? The answer originated in a different time. It was a world in which the backroom deals of our two major political parties created a process of selection that would be obediently followed for decades, without much dispute.

This began to unravel in 2016 when Iowa caucus-goers seemed to split evenly between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The moment our state was unable to declare a candidate’s decisive victory was when those frustrated began to try to learn more about the process, perhaps with the intention to help us dumb yokels provide the results in a manner that was easier to explain and more efficient to report.

In their discovery, they began to learn about the informality of our caucuses. Our process lacked real transparency in terms of how delegates were appointed and it was filled with antiquated methods like raw vote counts and coin tosses. The entire event was hard to understand and even harder to explain among the journalists and reporters who flocked to our state with barely hidden resentment at having to spend the winter with a bunch of hayseeds, flipping quarters between Bernie and Hillary.

It was the Sanders camp that first approached the Democratic National Committee with their apprehension about the Iowa caucuses. The DNC then met with Iowa State Democratic leadership to introduce their concerns and request the first real meaningful changes to our process since 1972. Iowa responded positively to these suggestions, even telling our national party leadership of an aggressive initiative to transition our antiquated caucus process into a digital platform that allowed party members to vote from their smart phones.

When questions about the access and security of such a reporting method arose, state leaders backpedaled and considered a more measured solution. Iowa would implement a paper process for their candidate selection, but enable precincts to report the results of their caucus through a phone app. This app would help calculate the raw votes into appropriate delegate numbers while providing the state party with immediate, real-time results. The paper trail would provide a way to audit and verify the results if there was any uncertainty.

Continue reading In Memoriam: The Iowa Caucus 1972-2020

The Suffering Subsides: On the Death of David Berman

The summer of 2019 has been filled with inner turmoil and a return to a depressive state that I haven’t felt in some time. I immediately retreated into a pattern of cleansing abstinence, a trick that I learned in my younger days when I was stronger and able to fool myself that the experience of depression somehow shaped a man, preparing him for more battles of the mind in the future.

But I’m older now. And with each passing year the folly of life becomes more apparent, along with the realization that I’m past the halfway mark. This is the downhill, the point where you begin to pick up steam, only to realize that the caliper brakes have become corroded over time. Life will end in an abrupt crash and not from a slow and steady reduction of speed that affords you the time to reflect on and repair those things you should have addressed before cresting the hill. In other words, I may have become too old and weak to keep fighting depression like this.

My summer of discontent began as a manifestation of personal doubt, professional tribulations and a natural self-loathing that comes from recognizing there’s very little on this planet that requires my involvement. Of course, America’s current political climate only added to the mix, providing an endless brickwall of sonic garbage for both ears, left ‘n right. The words “I want to die where the presidency died!” have become more than just a hipster reference about some drug-fueled indie-rock poet’s bad night, it became a clever suicide note that more people could consider leaving.

Around the same time, I began to think about David Berman. I’d like to believe that it was more than just a passing coincidence–after all, he’d been “retired” and out of the public eye for a decade and I’d heard no hint of his planned return. It was more about, “I wonder how he’s doing,” picturing him disheveled with too-big spectacles, lounging in a chair smoking and reading a book. I never met the man, but I projected enough to think that he resembled an old college roommate of mine, also a depressive sort. It’s amazing how we all seem to find each other with our sad fuck pheromones.

That’s part of it, I guess; the idea that if we all just channel the remaining light we have left that somehow we’ll have enough clarity to make it through the dark times. Then you learn that someone has fallen off and you realize the limitations of your mind’s own illumination.

Continue reading The Suffering Subsides: On the Death of David Berman

Iowa Jam: The Grateful Dead at the UNI-Dome 2/5/1978

The word is it was a cold night with a biting wind that brought the real world temperature to around 20 below. The sky was overcast on that Sunday evening in Cedar Falls, Iowa and there was a chance of snow. It was a fairly common winter evening for this college town of about 50,000 residents nestled next to a river of the same name; some even perpetuated the myth that the University of Northern Iowa campus was the second windiest, trailing behind Loyola or some other Chicago-based college.

The Grateful Dead’s winter tour in the early months of 1978 had just played Madison and Milwaukee, making Wisconsin the lucky recipient of the band’s weekend mojo. The University of Northern Iowa was fortunate enough to book the band for the Sunday night in their large athletic arena called the UNI-Dome.

I should note that I am an alumnus of the University of Northern Iowa, so I’m very familiar with the campus and the area itself. I continue to live in the Cedar Valley and enjoy living here.

I’m also a fan of the Grateful Dead, to the point where my family rolls their eyes when I ask Alexa to play the band in the kitchen. But fuck those guys. I’m cooking them dinner and I want to hear “Jack Straw” sometimes while I’m boiling water.

Acknowledging both of these things is important, because it makes me a barely credible source regarding the time the Grateful Dead rolled into Cedar Falls and performed a concert at a regionally iconic venue/sports complex at the same university that let me walk away with a B.A. in Communications after only five completely underachieving years.

While I wasn’t present for the performance, I was very aware of the folklore of the show while attending the university a decade after it actually happened. The recollections were (literal) half-baked musings or suspect recounts of someone how knew someone who had a friend who went to the show.

Continue reading Iowa Jam: The Grateful Dead at the UNI-Dome 2/5/1978

John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John – This Christmas

Olivia Newton-John Travolta - This ChristmasJohn Travolta & Olivia Newton-John -- This Christmas (Universal)

The pairing is complete nostalgia. There is no other reason that John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John are together for a Christmas album aside from the fact that they were both cast together in a small little movie musical called Grease over thirty years ago.

Grease has flourished since its first run on charm alone. How else can you explain the impossible plot of an Australian immigrant--who is hot off an innocent summer fling with a local gearhead--as she navigates the social landscape of high school with a collective of sexually active girls, headed by a 34-year old Stockard Channing?

As the main characters in the film, Olivia and Travolta aren’t particularly compatible on screen and their voices don’t blend together all that notably during their duets. Regardless, they have managed to become the biggest selling duet in pop history and their presence in Grease completes the film’s campy homage to 50s B-movies, giving all of that aforementioned improbability a free pass.

How these characters have managed to ride Greased Lightening up through the skies and endured for so long is pretty remarkable, so the idea of them returning together to perform Christmas music isn’t completely out of the realm. Unfortunately, when one doesn’t properly attend to the execution of such a reunion, what you get is a record that’s more acknowledged for its weird aftertaste than musical flavor.

I won’t even mention the cover, because it’d be like bitching about how Kraft Macaroni and Cheese tastes nothing like a homemade batch of the gooey comfort food. This is truth in advertising, and the only thing that would make the cover of This Christmas more awesome is if Travolta sported a cheesy seasonal sweater.

As hard as it is to be polite about the cover art, I simply cannot get away from all of the tabloid overtones when Travolta takes over the resistant role of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” We’re all accustomed to Olivia’s occasional glimpses as the sexual aggressor (Shake Shack, anyone?), but to hear Danny Zuko put up a fight to Sandy’s advances thirty years after the fact makes for a perfect hushed whisper of “Beard!”

There are other laugh-out-loud moments within This Christmas that are much less juvenile, but equally surreal. Like the part during “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” when Barbara Streisand pops in for a verse for absolutely no reason at all.

Speaking of guest cameos, there are tons of ‘em. From another brake-slamming appearance (this time with James Taylor on “Deck The Halls”) to a not-so-subtle nod to the Scientology folks with some ivory-tickling from Chick Corea, John and Olivia bring a whole slew of friends to join in their Christmas spirit and it’s as sincere as you pretending to think the gag gift you get at work during your department’s holiday party is funny.

There’s octogenarian Tony Bennett who drops in for “Winter Wonderland,” if you count having your verses recorded at a completely different studio during a completely different session as “dropping in.”

ONJ brings out longtime musical partner John Farrar for the record’s lone original track “I Think You Might Like It.” Farrar was responsible for many of Olivia’s biggest hits, and he served as both the writer and producer for “You’re The One That I Want,” the hit single that propelled the pair into the record books.

Farrar’s latest tune is being called the sequel to that Grease classic, and it’s hard to dispute that claim since it follows nearly the same chord progression under the guise of some light country swag.

Clearly, I’m not the man who should be reviewing This Christmas because I’m overflowing with cynicism at every turn.

So I ask my wife, who often fills the house with a bit of Christmas singing of her own during the holidays, to offer her opinion of the pairing. Suddenly, I find her singing along with This Christmas, causing me to consider that maybe it is my jaded outlook that’s causing me to be so dismissive of this holiday collection.

When I ask her if This Christmas has caused her spontaneous outburst of seasonal caroling, she admitted that it wasn’t the quality of the songs that prompted her singing, but just the familiarity of the material.

Indeed, the selection doesn’t stray far from the obligatory set list that every holiday record seems to cull from. Case in point: ONJ has now selected “Silent Night” for every Christmas album she has released.

This Christmas is the perfect holiday record for anyone who has been waiting since Two Of A Kind for the return of John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. Beyond that, This Christmas is another run-of-the-mill collection of uninspired holiday classics featuring a bunch of questionable guest appearances and two longstanding friends who can’t seem to get away from those hallowed halls of Rydell High.

An extra star has been added for this release as all proceeds from the sale of This Christmas go to the artist’s charitable foundations.

Video: John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John -- “I Think You Might Like It”

I Think You Might Like It

Lost Classic: Roxy Music – Viva! Roxy Music

Roxy MusicViva! Roxy Music (Virgin)

During my first year of high school, I befriended an upperclassman who shared my obsession with rock and roll music. The two of us were also similar in trying to expand our collective musical knowledge by exploiting every opportunity that presented itself to us so that we could explore uncharted music together.

For my friend, an opportunity presented itself at his job. He “babysat” the automated music playlist at the local FM radio EZ listening station on weekends during the overnight hours.

It drove my friend crazy. After only a few weeks of it, he began to think that the small wage that he was earning was enough to endure the 6 hours of Ferrante & Tiecher format that pumped through the studio monitors. Never mind the fact that he barely uttered a word during his shift as the only time you would even hear him over the air was reading the weather forecast twice an hour, and even that was committed to tape.

The inactivity gave him a lot of free time. He began to snoop around the facilities and noticed that the Program Director for the station occasionally left the door to his office unlocked. During one clandestine operation, he discovered that the shelves of his boss’ office contained a huge array of promotional records, some of which the PD brought from other radio stations.

Instinctively, he began to stuff his book bag with some of the titles, not with the intent of stealing them, but instead to borrow them until the next airshift so that he could dub them off on to cassette.

He began inviting me over to his listening sessions, and I would dutifully wait my turn to fill up a few blank Maxells. The records were mostly A.O.R. titles that graced the cutout bins while providing a glut of promotional albums that would find their ways into the personal collections of radio programmers across the country.

I listened to a lot of new music thanks to my friend’s system, everything from Graham Parker to a live Ramones record (It’s Alive). Every week was a new adventure. On occasion, you’d get a real dud–The Boomtown Rats Tonic For The Troops immediately comes to mind–but the beauty of magnetic tape was how its contents were just a red button away from extinction.

Conversely, there were those records that proved to be so good that I would punch out the safety tabs on the cassette, a feature that prevented someone from accidentally erasing over a particular selection.

Such was the case with Roxy Music, whose live document Viva! made its way to my friend’s turntable and onto a waiting cassette that stayed with me for many years.

I loved the record’s aggressiveness. In fact, it may be the only document of the group that suits the sonic vision that their own name coolly suggests. I fell into it with such great force that I ordered their newest title from Columbia House, Avalon, and became immediately disappointed that they had turned into a bunch of pussies with that record.

Time, repeated listens, and that silly notion of how Avalon is required coitus music, have changed my perspective of that record, but Viva! has always remained my first love, and the first reason why I began exploring the group’s catalog.

Viva! is not found on the recent The Complete Studio Recordings (for obvious reasons) and it’s a record that is curiously overlooked by many Roxy fans. The chief complaint that I hear from them is actually one of the reasons why I love with the record: its brevity.

Clocking in to just barely fit on to one side of a C-90 tape and providing only eight songs to promote a very worthy catalog, Viva! Roxy Music demonstrates a very progressive rock band, one that sounded heavier than their studio versions and one that possessed some very real rock and roll chops.

Beginning with “Out Of The Blue,” the opening track finds drummer Paul Thompson trying to knock the “art rock” label right off the gallery walls. Guitarist Phil Manzanera weaves a very hypnotic guitar phrase while Andy Mackay’s lays down a haunting oboe…that’s right, oboe…making this version a very good candidate for actually being better than the studio version found on Country Life.

This high-energy mix is apparent on nearly all of the tracks on Viva! suggesting that Roxy Music was a band of very capable and exciting performers, ones that contradict the button-down persona of their image. The record clearly proclaims the musicians to be worthy enough to energize even the most pretentious of fans who may view Roxy Music as somehow beneath such primal urges.

Now that we’re all giddy from the nostalgia that The Complete Studio Records brings, and now that the box set correctly bestowed Roxy Music as one of the genre’s most creative forces, it’s time to consider Viva! into the tapestry. It’s a unique document of the band, rolling up their sleeves and slugging out an honest day’s work on stage and on fire.

Roxy Music – The Complete Studio Recordings 1972-1982

Roxy MusicThe Complete Studio Recordings 1972-1982 (Virgin)

A few years ago, I named Bryan Ferry’s Olympia release as worthy enough to receive the Roxy Music moniker. The argument went that the Roxy personnel all took part in its creation (including Brian Eno) so why not just used the brand name?

I had a chance to review that brand recently, thanks to the newly issued Roxy Music box set, The Complete Studio Recordings 1972 – 1982. And while I still would have no trouble with calling Olympia a Roxy Music album, the new box set has provided me with a renewed appreciation of why Ferry decided to leave well enough alone, because what they accomplished during their 8 studio records is already better than “well enough.”

The Complete Studio Recordings 1972 – 1982 is a ten-disc collection of those eight records, with the additional two housing the band’s debut single (“Virginia Plain” may be worth the price of admission alone), their b-sides, and the endless mixes on all of the Avalon singles.

Since we’ve already seen Roxy Music’s catalog reissued with the allure of remastered mixes, and since The Thrill Of It All had already served as a boxed compendium, why would anyone need to revisit the band in another career overview?

For me, it was a matter of simple mathematics. Having not gotten beyond a well worn, first generation cd of Avalon (that after a well-worn vinyl version from the friends at Columbia House) and some equally hissy copies of a few other titles, I knew that I’d eventually need to find a home for every single Roxy release. The new box set is priced low enough to hit everything at once.

That sticker price gets every release the full reproduction gatefold sleeves and, perhaps more importantly considering our trend on the loudness wars, a tinker-free release of the original recordings themselves.

This set represents the original mixes–for better or worse in some cases–with no hint of additional compression or heavy-handed eq’ing. That’s important when dealing with a band like Roxy Music, who seemed completely focused on their attention to detail.

“For worse” would be the awful mix that hindered the debut, to the point where Bryan Ferry himself wanted to redo the entire album for years after, because of the record’s unforgiving mix. They got better–as in remarkably better–on the follow-up For Your Pleasure, which finds Ferry exerting his dominance over Eno in the band’s arrangements.

In fact, For Your Pleasure not only shows the band to continue to grow without the aid of Eno’s input, it also finds them growing better as his role diminished. For Your Pleasure secures the band’s place in history even as their sophomore offering, and it’s just one of many discoveries that I found from The Complete Studio Recordings.

There’s two other must have releases, featured in their original and intended mixes that are, without question, deserving of everyone’s record collection: Siren and Avalon. Each effort shows the band in periods of enviable growth and brimming confidence. All three records taken in once again show a band perfectly adaptable at reinventing themselves, seemingly without sounding as if they were even setting out to do exactly that. They stumble into the career building moments with such ease that it makes the entire Eno departure feel like a necessary decision that allowed the band to become as great as they were.

But the real treat with The Complete Studio Recordings is re-examining Roxy Music’s other records, which pale only because that aforementioned trio of essential records shine so brightly.

I remembered being drawn to Country Life as a teenager, most assuredly for its risqué cover and confirmation of Bryan Ferry’s prowess as a ladies man. I am now drawn to it entirely from its content inside. It is a collection of consistent growth, finding the band very comfortable with their fashion and abilities as musicians. This is the sound of a band working hard at their craft, while donning a business casual clothing sense during the rehearsal time.

By Manifesto! the band is acting the part of royal statesmen while Flesh + Blood–a personal favorite that’s much maligned by others outside of the Roxy faithful–begins to show signs of a new subgenre, one whose name doesn’t even exist.

I understand the complaints of how Flesh + Blood is nothing more than a tepid return from a lengthy (by 1980 standards) hiatus, but for me it sounds like a victory lab before unleashing what would become the band’s signature opus, Avalon.

Avalon benefits the most from the 2012 remastering as it leaves the record’s rich texture and subtle dynamics in tact, a rare feat during a time when most re-issues are met with a tradition of remixing records of some note to cater to the thin fidelity of today’s earbud generation.

The Complete Studio Recordings 1972 – 1982 hints at a much different era. It reflects a time when bands were given a wide birth in order to grow and develop. It also demonstrates how this freedom can actually lend itself to fostering an environment where a band can become great on its own, through natural selection and just plain old stubbornness.

It is a necessary document of the band’s legacy and consistency, one that’s needed not only out of the duty that’s created from their influence, but for the sheer enjoyment of listening to a band grow, develop, and become great.

What makes it such a requirement is how it shows that Roxy Music managed to do that not just once or twice, but for at least three of titles included with this collection. And to be able to achieve this in the span of a decade makes this box set not only complete, but completely essential.

Cat Power – Sun

Cat Power -- Sun (Matador)

The story goes that when Chan Marshall set off to begin the follow up to the very hard to follow up The Greatest, she presented her progress to a friend. She could tell that the new material didn’t grab her friend in quite the manner that she hoped, and after some additional probing, the friend declared that the new songs sounded pretty much like any other Car Power song.

And Chan Marshall was tired of sounding like the “old” Cat Power.

More power to her--pun intended--as the process of avoiding stagnation has given rock and roll some of its best moments.

It has also given it some of its worst, and the risk for epic failure gets greater when artists begin to incorporate other styles and genres that are way beyond their limits. For example: Bob Mould may be a fine dj on the weekends, but that doesn’t mean he makes a mean EDM record.

More to the point, it doesn’t mean that I want to hear a Bob Mould EDM album either. I want my musical heroes to be brave enough to listen to that bit of self-doubt in their heads that says, “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Chan Marshall shouldn’t be making records like Sun, plain and simple. That’s my opinion, and it comes from the same one that thinks The Greatest was a risky album on its own. It, and to a lesser extent Jukebox, positioned Chan into promising new direction. Instead, she has now squandered that promise into a half-baked record of songs that seem to insinuate that the recording session for Sun was nothing more than one big distraction.

There are beats, rhythms, vocoders, beeps, and other creations that seem to be the result of a shopping spree in the electronics area of Guitar Center. There’s no rhyme or reason to when and why these sounds are introduced in a song, so you’re left to assume that shit just kept getting added on until Chan finally had the empathy to say “Stick a fork in it. It’s done.”

The nonsense starts early. The opener, “Cherokee,” gradually brings the listeners into Chan’s left turn, starting with a shimmering guitar before the manufactured beats make their entrance.

And you know what? It’s ok for a moment. When Chan mutters “Never knew love like this,” she sounds like she’s on the other end of a dial-up internet connection. Big beats come in and things get a little shaky, but again, Marshall hides it with a great chorus of repeated “Marry me to the sky,” bringing a bit of a lyrical connection with the song title.

Then, at exactly 3:05 into “Cherokee,” the sound of a fucking hawk or some other bird comes in. Immediately, I was like “What the fuck was that?!”

I quickly rewound and discovered the truth, and it was at that moment that I decided that I didn’t like the new Cat Power album.

The title track is just an overloaded mess of processed vocals and I’ve even started to lose interest into the briefly infectious lead-off single, “Ruin.”

My wife, who owns quite a large collection of Glee product, declares “3, 6, 9” as “strangely good” while it only makes me say, “I see what you did there!” What Marshall comes up with is a hooky bit of prose that repeats ad infinitum.

The darker moments are the best, and they will be the only moments that I’ll end up leaving in my playlist after this review posts. “Always On My Own” and “Human Being” are harrowing tales, but it’s “Manhattan” that serves as the best interpretation of Marshall’s desire to be different.

With it’s cheesy drum machine and simple, four-step piano phrase, Marshall double-tracks her voice with an emotive lead over her trademarked low-end mumble. “Don’t look at the moon tonight,” she warns “It will never be Manhattan.”

How can I stay mad at a line like that? I can’t, but I can leave off a good chunk of Sun and wonder if this is the work of a woman who’s heart isn’t in it anymore. Because Sun sounds more like an obligation, if you ask me, with each and every electronic addition seemingly introduced to cover up the fact that the album has very little heart behind it.

It is a record that began with a notion that it needed to be different, when it should have been looked at as a record that needed to be better than The Greatest.

Video: Cat Power -- “Cherokee”

Cat Power - Cherokee

MP3: Cat Power -- “Ruin”

Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Crown and Treaty

Sweet Billy Pilgrim -- Crown And Treaty (EMI)

Occasionally, an album arrives and upon first listen you get the sense that the music jumping out of the grooves wasn’t created in a sterile studio with too little daylight and too much attention to detail. With Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s third release, Crown and Treaty, you get the sense that the recording studio is nothing more than a few rooms in a house with wires littering the floor and dirty dishes piling up in the kitchen sink.

Fuck those chores, particularly if the end results command a record as eloquently crafted as this. Crown and Treaty doesn’t suffer from any poor fidelity sonics resulting from this homespun approach. It’s as detailed as anything as you’d expect from a band with a recording budget that matches the muse that they’ve set out to scale. This muse is in full, beautiful array throughout Crown and Treaty, in what is certainly one of the best albums that you’ll hear all year.

Crown and Treaty incorporates delicate organic instrumentation (clean guitars, banjos, pianos, whatever’s lying around) with some great harmonies, initiated by Tim Elsenburg’s gentle voice. With the recent addition of Jana Carpenter to the fold, Sweet Billy Pilgrim has now found a wider range of vocal emotion, which only begins to take off during the album’s second half.

Prior to those moments, Crown and Treaty offers a wide range of expression through its original arrangements and Elsenburg’s own imaginative lyrics.  There’s a sense of maturity throughout his study on melancholia, suggesting that the existential crisis that we all experience is preordained from day one. Or, as Elsenburg himself details more succinctly in one track, “Life is a place we arrive at upside down.”

If it’s not his own demons he’s documenting, he uses other source material for the task. “Kracklite” appends Brian Dennehy’s character in the 1987 The Belly of an Architect and uses it as a discussion of the folly of trying to overcome our own mortality. “Monuments we build  tumble to the ground,” Elsenburg sings, accurately pointing out that even the most majestic of structures we place on this earth are “just another way to be forgotten.”

With Crown and Treaty, Sweet Billy Pilgrim have delivered their homespun masterstroke, an album that only begs the question of what other gems do they have hidden in their house of creativity and enviable sense of arrangements. Here’s hoping that this musical monument never gets forgotten.

Video: Sweet Billy Pilgrim -- “Archaeology”

Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Archaeology (Official Video)

Video: Sweet Billy Pilgrim -- “Kracklite” (acoustic version)

Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Kracklite (acoustic version)

Video: Sweet Billy Pilgrim -- “Blue Sky Falls” (acoustic version)

Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Blue Sky Falls (acoustic version)

Swans – The Seer

SwansThe Seer (Young God)

The cover art to Swans’ 12th album–like the record itself–makes a credible argument that The Seer is probably better suited for a vinyl format.

It features a painting of a dog, presumably a Yorkshire Terrier, a small breed of canine that is small in stature and originally bred to kill rats in the clothing mills of England. They bark a lot, which makes them excellent alarmist and they have a tendency to have dental problems throughout their life.

The Yorkie on the cover of The Seer features Swans’ leader Michael Gira’s teeth drawn in the dog’s mouth. Flip the cover over and there is a picture of the dog’s anus in full view. I’m giving the artist (Simon Henwood) the benefit of the doubt by assuming that it is merely representative of the dog’s backside, not Gira’s.

How this particular breed relates to Gira is another matter for discussion. I don’t know the relevance or if it even if there is one. I just know that it’s disturbing and compelling at the same time, the same feelings you get from listening to The Seer. It’s a record that not only serves as the culmination of Gira’s thirty year career as a provocative noise monger, but one that qualifies as perhaps the best album you’ll hear this year.

That praise comes with the condition that you’ll have an open mind to tolerate epic lengths of sonic torture. The Seer isn’t for everyone, but the reality that Gira has accomplished something very special here needs to be relayed to every music lover, including the ones that will never enjoy endless moments of sonic drones and skull crushing accentuation.

This, perhaps, is the other reason The Seer is better suited for the vinyl format.  At two hours in length, and with some songs running near the half-hour mark, you’ll need that simple act of taking the needle off the record to take a breath and compose yourself. This isn’t to suggest that all 120 minutes aren’t worth their weight, but to suggest that Gira’s dread is often the equivalent of enduring repeated blows to your optimism.

The Seer is not comprised entirely of his bag of confrontational brutality; there are moments of incredible beauty paced throughout this monolithic creature, and some of those moments come at the hand (or voice) of the album’s long cast of characters.

The most notable is “Song For A Warrior” featuring Karen O in a strategically placed spot, kicking off the record’s second half and providing a reprieve from the record’s primal first disc.

But perhaps the most beautiful is the “A Piece Of The Sky,” a nineteen-minute suite that begins with a crackling fire, develops into a nightmare chorale (featuring former member Jarobe scratching out the polyphonic drone), transforms into post-rock stomp before brilliantly segueing into a languid poetry shuffle where Gira delivers some of the best prose of the album.

It alternates, like most of the Swans most notable material, between the profane and profound. Gira points out the beauty in even the most conflicting of environments (“In the wind of my lung/In methane and in love/In petroleum plumes/There’s a floating slice of moon”).

The Seer is as abrasive as life itself, and how you chose to relate to its harsh realities is a matter of both taste and tolerance.  

But If you’re familiar with Michael Gira’s past 30 years, and are willing to believe that he’s able to deliver the most complete and compelling work at nearly 60 years of age, then The Seer will show how this old dog’s bark is just as vicious as it has ever been.

Joyce Manor – Of All The Things I Will Soon Grow Tired

Joyce ManorOf All The Things I Will Soon Grow Tired (Asian Man)

I guess I’m supposed to ignore the fact that Joyce Manor do little more than deliver a very competent blend of late 20th Century punk rock and praise them for their “honesty” and “DIY ethos.” There’s a place for that, particularly when it’s been years since you’ve been away from such things, but to be completely honest, I’m having a hard time giving such a recommendation for something that I literally forgot about reviewing three weeks after I originally listened to it for said purpose.

Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired is a swift 9-track e.p. of punchy angst that alternates between straight-up lo-fi acoustic barks to garage blasts, rehashing the same chords that others have traveled and done so more memorably.

Christ, even the cover of “Video Killed The Radio Star” sounds like it’s in the line-up as nothing more than a novelty cut, ignoring the obvious that Joyce Manor’s generation has no fucking clue what a video even is, let alone believe the death rattle that they originally portended to channel.

While The Buggles were far from being groundbreakers and even farther from becoming legitimate prophets, there was at least a sense of believable dialogue when that song originally aired. For Joyce Manor, there is little evidence throughout Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired that they possess even the slightest hint of looking forward, never mind attempting to make sure the title of their e.p. is anything but a reflection of what’s exactly inside the package.

Video: Joyce Manor – “Drainage / If I Needed You There”