Get off my lawn

“It’s just some funny old kitschy thing to him he saw on YouTube. But that was my commercial. I actually experienced it. You know?” – Ben Stiller ibn “While We’re Young”.

I finally watched this Noah Baumbach film over the weekend, with the much more appropriate Japan-release title “Young Adult New York”. I really related to the Josh character and admired the fine acting by Stiller, Naomi Watts and Adam Horovitz (?!?) plus … those kids, you know, that new Darth Vader guy and the chick that played Mark Wahlberg’s girlfriend in “Ted 2”. There was a surprising twist with Josh moving from initial attraction to the young hipsters toward eventual rejection of their cruel indifference to “the truth”.

Cultural misappropriation is a key theme and is amusingly handled via Adam Driver’s character naming his band after Carvel’s 1980s St. Patrick’s Day ice cream cake Cookie O’Puss, much to the annoyance of Josh (and, no doubt, first-gen Cookie P. appropriator AdRock). But bearing in mind that there is truly nothing new under the sun, it really all comes down to perception, doesn’t it? One man’s innovation is another’s bastardization. Where do we draw the line?

I’ve been listening to the recent releases from Deep State and Baked this week. My first impressions of both were that they were pretty derivative, but by the end of the week I was quite liking them. I have to wonder if Baumbach’s film had somehow prejudiced me against them temporarily. I fell pretty quickly for bands like Yuck, Car Seat Headrest and Whitney, none of whom are especially original. I can tell you WHAT I like about these groups’ sounds but when it comes down to WHY I like them it gets more difficult. Especially if I have to explain it vis a vis why I don’t like Speedy Ortiz, Vampire Weekend or Cabbage.

Deep State are a fun mix of classic punk and modern indie rock. Nothing especially sets them apart from recent peers like Cloud Nothings, except their singer, who sounds a like a guy who’s stayed up all night smoking, drinking and singing Paul McCartney and Gilbert O’Sullivan songs in karaoke. Baked is a bit more novel, with an odd fusion of alt-country and shoegaze that is done so naturally it doesn’t come across at all as bizarre as that description sounds. In the end it just comes down to the songs. And these are some some pretty good ones.

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Pop out of the summer doldrums

Back from a two-week vacation and a bit dismayed to find I haven’t really missed all that much musically. Most bands are slogging through the summer festival earnings season, and the latest releases from stalwarts LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene sound uninspired. I was beginning to panic about ever finding another album worth writing about when I decided to listen to Emperor X’s Oversleepers International, which I downloaded a while back. This is the first time I’ve heard this guy’s stuff, and it comes as a much-needed breath of fresh air amid the recently steamy Tokyo weather.

My initial describe-an-artist-as-a-combo-of-other-artists reaction is a mix of Ben Gibbard and Doug Martsch (in all of their associated projects). But further listens reveal a depth of influences and ideas. The Wiki profile says the Emperor’s alter-ego Chad Matheny quit pursuing a graduate degree in physics in order to dedicate himself to music. But despite the erudite lyrical content (science, politics, philosophy) these songs aren’t math rock puzzles, they’re intimate pop anthems.

The opener “Wasted on the Senate Floor” has all the power and bombast of The Hold Steady. The polished “€30,000” recalls those 3 weeks in the mid-90s when I thought Ben Folds was really great. There are also some notable departures from the basic indie pop palette into dance music (“Warmth Perimeter”) and loopy trance (the 8-minute outro at the end of the last song).

The production is more deliberately homemade than lo-fi. More like an Etsy ornament or public access TV show than a GBV or Sebadoh classic. There’s beautiful acoustic guitar and piano work throughout Oversleepers which gives it a nice warm “live” sound. Overall it’s a strong album start to finish. Thanks for restoring my faith in music Emperor.

Like a punk rock Huck Finn

Still digesting the bevy of albums released last week, including the latest from Matthew Sweet, Jason Lowenstein, Lost Balloons and Kevin Morby. Was especially looking forward to those last two and was somewhat taken aback at first by how quiet they both are. But growing on me, they are. Still think the standout track on Lost Balloons’ Hey Summer is the previously released single “Numb,” but the rest of the songs are sounding stronger with every listen. Soon it may even catch up to their self-titled debut in my rotation.

Kevin Morby’s City Music is also starting to inch up toward the high expectations I had after last year’s amazing Singing Saw. I’ve listened to the new release 4 or 5 times now and I’m finally starting to comprehend it, as a piece of Americana. While not really country or folk, Morby’s Dylanesque voice will always make his music lean that way in my ears. Apparently it’s a sort of concept album about some old woman named Mabel in the titular “City” of New York. But for me the main character is Morby himself, as a Brooklyn and L.A.-schooled musical carpetbagger about to lay siege to Nashville, or Memphis, or New Orleans.

This interpretation seemingly runs into trouble early at songs 2 and 3. “Crybaby” is a clean-guitar interpretation of a Pixies chord progression (and I like to think inspired by a John Waters film?), while “1234” is an unlikely sounding tribute to the Ramones and Jim Carroll. At first these stood out like sore thumbs, but the more I listen to the album the more they fit in just fine alongside the bluesy shuffle of “City Music,” the Guthrie/Dylan folk of “Downtown’s Light,” the spiritual “Dry Your Eyes,” and “Flannery,” which is simply a woman giving a dramatic reading of a section of O’Connor’s novel The Violent Bear It Away. Such is the great cultural hodgepodge that is the country that produced this unique voice. Kevin, if you’re planning on continuing your quest toward an American epic, I’ve got a title for your next album: Morby Dick. (Really, you can have it.)

Power Pop 101

The Rubs could make even the Shoes and the Rubinoos blush with their new album Impossible Dream. Of the 12 songs, the first two include the word “Girl” in their titles, and four others are named for specific girls, “Judy,” “Amy,” “Ruby” and “Emily”. The third track is called “Too Young For Me” and the last is “I Wanted You Tonight”. Not to mention the naked lady on the cover. And they must have taken the tapes back in a time machine to 1978 to do the mix. Over all just a really fun listen, but this title track is sublime.

Spring cleaning

Seems to have been a dearth of interesting new releases in the past couple weeks. The timing’s been good given our recent overseas visitors and some late spring colds. Perhaps also a bit of fatigue and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” mentality setting in with the blog entering its third month. But at last this sweet little EP from Stutter Steps has come along to sweep out all the cobwebs and whip me back into shape. The group is led by Ben Harrison, who’s day job is performing arts curator at the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh. Harrison channels Drella musically not so much with a direct Velvet Underground reference, but something more in line with their latter-day standard bearers. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette likens Stutter Steps to Luna, the Go-Betweens and the Feelies. Not bad comparisons but somehow I’m getting more Beat Happening. Rhythmic, slightly fuzzy guitars with clear lead riffs, simple drumming and baritoney vocals. Nice record to pick yourself up with.