why conor oberst is santa claus

At about the halfway point of the 2000-ies, when garage rock was receding back into the watery depths, there happened a somewhat anomalous occurrence. A bunch of kids from Omaha, Nebraska’s Saddle Creek Records seemed next in line to become the next big thing. Like in any Next Big Thing, they were all young, good looking, and sad as hell. Conor Oberst, the groups prolific, manic depressive princeling, seemed destined to kneel down before Julian Cassablancas and have the crown of rock placed right on his lethargic, doughy-eyed head. Yet this was never fully realized. The Omaha folk explosion exited the mainstream as suddenly as it entered it. Obersts band, Bright Eyes, never created the classic album that they seemed on the brink of creating in 2004. Oberst spent the rest of the decade backpedaling from the heart-on-sleeve accidental pin-up image that he had made for himself.

conor oberst playing “lua,” off of the 2005 album “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.”

Although I haven’t been listening to Bright Eyes as much recently, they graced Hawaii Theatre last week. I have to say, I was disappointed by the show, as were a lot of my friends who were in attendance. I couldn’t really place why at first, but I think, oddly, that it’s because Conor Oberst is confident on stage. I came to love Oberst’s records because of the shaky frailty and insecurity that comes through so easily in his vocal delivery. Yet on stage he paraded about, overtly aware of his own greatness. At a point in one song he took off his shirt. This is kind of the musical equivalent of learning that Santa isn’t real.

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At long last, Bono finds what he was looking for

After nearly three decades, it was formally announced yesterday that Bono, lead singer of U2, has found what he was looking for. As it turns out, the lost item appears to have been a missing sock from 1987. This has created a longstanding odd-number-of-socks situation in the Bono household that can finally be put to rest. Said one elated fan, “I’m really glad for Bono, from the sounds of it, he really wanted to find what he was looking for.” The fan went on to say that she hopes that the finding of what he was looking for doesn’t inhibit in any way the emotional capacity of his live performance while doing the song.

 

Imagine all the good he will do with both socks on. Watch your back, Somalian drought.

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mosh me young again

My friend and former bandmate/ heterosexual life-partner moved back to Hawaii after three years in California last week, and naturally the first order of business was to go drink silly amounts of alcohol and enjoy some good old fashioned local rock n roll jams. His first comment after listening to a couple a bands was: So what, no one moshes anymore? He then proceeded to try and start something up, but the only thing that came of this was me falling ungracefully to the floor and cutting my arm up. Then he helped me back up and apologized. We are definitely not in high school anymore.

Although the comment was only half serious, it is undeniable that the Hawaii rock scene, however infinitesimal, has changed fundamentally within the past few years. In 2005, the headquarters for most local rock was Waikiki, but in recent years the eye of the storm has shifted to Chinatown. People don’t generally wear liberty spikes and studs anymore… and people generally don’t like to fuck each other up for fun on a Friday night. In Nietchzeian terms, rockers have largely ideologically moved from Dionysian catharsis as a means of release to a more Apollonian, golf-clapping version of fun. I don’t know whether this is lamentable or not. At first it’s nice, but shit. Since when were we above drinking in a park? I know something is missing because whenever I see a gloomy looking high school couple in Converse and eye shadow at a bus stop, my reaction is an endearing “awwww” instead of a repulsed “ewwww.” Then again, I could just be getting old.

Anywho, a week later, local rockers Narwhal played at Mercury Bar. They are heading to San Francisco this week to play a set of shows there, and as the ad for the show said, they needed to raise some money for beers.

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Hark! Narwhals set brought a flurry of that much-missed moshing. Yet my first thought when it started up “are you serious dude? calm down, man.”

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, I suppose. And then presence makes the heart grow cynical as a motherfucker.

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Lou Reed + Metallica = yikes.

Before sitting down to write a review of a new album, I like to afford the album at least four or five start-to-finish listens. I hunker down in solitude, and while listening, scribble down stream-of-consciousness notes on the music. But I have a confession to make. I could not make it past one and a half listens of the new Lou Reed and Metallica collaboration album, “Lulu.” I tapped out. When I looked at my notebook, my only two observations written were a question mark and a sad face.

Lou Reed was the lead-singer of the seminal 60s band The Velvet Underground. With the help of Andy Warhol and a Silver Factory full of amphetamines, they basically redefined the words “cool,” “art,” and “rock.” Metallica, in the 80s at least, were considered among the best heavy metal had to offer. Their impeccable pedigree makes “Lulu” all the sadder. Unlike the Jack White and Insane Clown Posse collaboration earlier this year, there isn’t even comedic value to redeem this unholy union.

Lou Reed sporting his androgynous drug-addled alien look during the 70s

The album opener, “Bradenberg Gate,” starts with Lou Reed dead-panning lyrics about womanhood, self-mutilation, and vampires over a lone acoustic guitar chord progression. This is all well and good, up until about the thirty second mark. Metallica comes in unannounced, and you can tell by that first distorted, overproduced electric guitar chord that something has gone horribly amiss. Like Chinese food and cheddar cheese, some things just weren’t meant to be mixed.

The songs on Lulu are long. The album’s ten songs run an hour and a half. Not that long songs are intrinsically bad—The Flaming Lips just released a 24 hour song on Halloween—but the songs on “Lulu” are pointlessly long. In songs like “Iced Honey,” Metallica just plays the same two distorted chords over and over again with nary a build-up or build-down. The Velvet Underground got away with playing the same two chords for the seven minutes of their hit “Heroin,” but there were subtle changes in rhythm and a droning violin that constantly changed the dynamic. This isn’t repetition in the name of experimentation like Philip Glass or Can. This is seriously just the same two chords forever. Even the one song that has promise, the understated, pretty-sounding “Junior Dad,” gets arduous because it’s twenty minutes long.

this song is not very good.

Lyrics and storytelling are usually a strong suit of Reed’s, but there are some seriously cringe-worthy metaphors on Lulu: “You can’t put a butterfly in a jar/ if the effort’s too high no matter who you are/ you can’t catch the moon, or the sun or the stars.” Reed delivers the lyrics in his trademark spoken-word-singing hybrid while Metallica lead singer James Hetfield occasionally pops in and starts singing the same two words for a minute or two.

In 1975, Lou Reed released Metal Machine Music, an instrumental album of machine buzzes and clicks. It’s hard to get more polarizing than that infamously difficult album, but “Lulu” comes very, very close. USA Today reported last week that Reed has been receiving death threats from Metallica fans.

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A can of worms: the tyranny of catchiness

“Pizza in the morning, pizza in the evening, pizza at supper time. When pizza’s on a bagel, you can eat pizza anytime.”

Consider yourself blessed if these words mean absolutely nothing to you. For me, however, they have been a personal nightmare. They were featured in a 1996 jingle for Ore Ida pizza bagels, and this stupid song gets stuck in my head at least once a week.

For 15 years. That’s 780 times. My brain has thought more about pizza bagels in my lifetime than, say, my parent’s birthdays, or my personal well-being. I asked many of my associates if they recalled the song. Not only did they remember, they could recite every word verbatim. How could this ostensibly forgettable ’90s ad have lodged itself so successfully in our collective subconscious?

Listen at your own risk.

The scientific community refers to these tenacious songs as “earworms.” James Kellaris, a professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati, has conducted several studies on the cognitive and behavioral effects of music in advertising.

In a 2003 study, he found that 98 percent of people have the unfortunate experience of getting songs stuck in their heads. Women are more likely than men to encounter an earworm, and songs with lyrics are generally catchier.

Kellaris’ research has also shown that earworms often contain three specific traits: repetition, musical simplicity and incongruity. Incongruity can mean an unexpected or novel change in rhythm, or it may be a conceptual incongruity. Not immediately able to spot any myself, I asked Kellaris what incongruities the pizza bagel song possessed.

“There are three conceptual incongruities that make this odd,” he said. “One, pizza on a bagel, which is not a pizza. Two, pizza is Italian; bagels are Jewish. And three, pizza for breakfast?”

These conceptual incongruities produce an effect called “cognitive itch.” The brain runs the song in an attempt to mull over these ideas it finds to be inconsistent.

A 2011 study by Alison Pawley and Daniel Mullensiefen of Goldsmiths, University of London observed thousands of test subjects as they listened to music in an attempt to isolate traits that make songs “sing-alongable.”

They found that melodies without difficult sequences (think Beyonce) were catchier, which correlates well with Kellaris’rule of simplicity. They also found that male voices singing in high registers are most likely to be catchy. In their study,Pawley and Mullensiefen found Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” to be the most sing-alongable song of all time.

“The idea of a high-pitched male voice being catchier seems perfectly congruent with my conjecture about ‘incongruity’ making an earworm more likely,” Kellaris said of the findings. “We expect male voices to be low [and] female voices to be high. A high male voice is a violation of expectations.”

So has the mystery of the pizza bagel song been unraveled? Not really, and it probably never will be. The mind is a mysterious thing.

“What I found is that earworms tend to be idiosyncratic. We each have our own personal song demons. Across three surveys, I got a different ‘catchiest song of all time,'” Kellaris said.

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Wilco — The Whole Love: Appeals to obnoxious dad in all of us

A few years ago, music critic and pop culture over-analyzer Chuck Klosterman pegged Wilco as “the American Radiohead.” Comparing the bands’ music alone, the title is a bit of a misnomer, but there are definite similarities in the trajectory of their discographies.

They both began in the ’90s as rock bands, then released a couple of difficult, yet ultimately era-defining albums at the turn of the new millennium –after which they got kind of old and went back to making normal-sounding stuff.

Wilco’s era-definer, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” is widely regarded as one of the best rock albums of the past couple of decades. It paired bleak, self-conscious folk-rock songs with a backdrop of feedback, orchestral arrangements, buzzing, and a mélange of other wacky noises.

On its last couple of albums however, Wilco opted for much less wacky approach, and the results were far less memorable than “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” So before pressing play on Wilco’s new album release, “The Whole Love,” I whispered three Hail Marys and chanted, “please be weird, please be weird.”

At first listen, it seemed my prayers were answered. The first track, “The Art of Almost,” starts with an electronic-sounding loop, stuttering staccato drums and a bunch of long-overdue static. At seven minutes, the track goes through a few orchestral sequences and ends with a two-minute marathon guitar solo, courtesy of superhuman guitar warlock Nels Cline.

Sadly, “The Art of Almost” is just a tease. The other 11 songs don’t even make a blip on the wacky radar. Nevertheless, they are still Wilco songs, and that means that they’re really, really good.

“I think [‘The Whole Love’] is a little bit less straightforward and a little bit more obnoxious,” said Jeff Tweedy, frontman for Wilco, in an interview with The Honolulu Weekly.

Oddly, “obnoxious” is a good word to describe a lot of the album. Gone are the days of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” in which Tweedy sang lines like “I shake like a toothache / When I hear myself sing,” in a world-weary moan. In fast-paced songs like “Dawned on Me,” Tweedy’s vocals are confident, and radiate something that falls between happiness and irreverence.

The album’s most accessible song, “I Might,” combines a fuzzy, distorted bass line and cheery organ sounds with some great violent imagery: “It’s alright / you won’t set the kids on fire / but I might.”

“dad rock.”

The latter half of the album is more subdued, featuring the type of alt-country acoustic guitar songs that have garnered Wilco the title “dad-rock” in the past. In his Honolulu Weekly interview, Tweedy addressed the pejorative term.

“I think what they’re really talking about is rock music,” Tweedy said. “And if that’s old fashioned or from another generation or your dad’s generation or whatever, I guess that makes sense to me. But I don’t feel like there’s anything undignified or unreasonable about being a dad or rocking – so I just try and take it with a grain of salt.”

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Girls — Father, Son, and Holy Ghost : retro with a side of sad

In 2009, Girls hit a cultural nerve with its debut album, “Album.” “I wish I had a boyfriend, I wish I had a loving man in my life,” sang lead singer Christopher Owens in a punky snarl on the album’s opening song, “Lust for Life.” The accompanying music video, with its shots of ironically thrown frisbees and San Francisco rooftop dancing may as well have been a lifestyle manifesto for the now-toxic term hipster culture.

Those crazy kids! With their flowers and optimism and whatnot. Get a job.

His emotional directness and his understanding of that innate human desire to be wanted is part of what makes Owens’ songwriting work. Perhaps there’s a degree of necessity to his skill; the dude has a lot of dirty laundry to air. He grew up in the Texas-based religious cult Children of God. After he escaped from the group, he moved to San Francisco and got addicted to opiates, thus cementing his backstory in the “If I were to make up a fictional rock star’s life story, this is what it would be” category.

In an interview with music site Pitchfork, Owens spoke candidly about his addiction. “It fuels the music in a very serious way,” Owens said. “It allows you to focus on one thing – I can pinpoint an idea or an emotion while very heavily medicated, which is how I write most of my songs.”

Girls’ new release, “Father, Son, Holy Ghost,” is not a dramatic departure from the heart-on-sleeve retro rock of its first release, but rather a more polished and cohesive extension of the same idea. Musically, Owens unapologetically borrows from his idols, often reworking classic American song styles. If you took Randy Newman and Elvis (both Costello and Presley,) and ran it through a hazy, opiate-induced sad filter, you’d have a pretty close approximation of the style displayed here.

While the band’s first release relied only on guitars and drums, “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” makes use of all the small studio flourishes afforded to newly famous bands on their sophomore releases; bluesy organs and female soul singers accompany many songs, adding to the old-school Americana feel.

“Hey Ma.” Context makes this song pretty heart-wrenching, but even without, great jam.

An obvious pitfall of music that is so derivative of the classics is the possibility of sounding stale. The burden of framing something old as new lies heavily with the lead singer, and Owens handles the job well on “Father, Son, Holy Ghost.” Whereas on the band’s first album the vocal delivery came off sarcastic and self-satirizing at times, here Owens sounds frail, often barely whispering. Even potentially trite lines like “Nights I spend alone, nights I spend alone looking for you, baby,” are somehow still soul-crushing because of the audible honesty in Owens’ voice.

“Father, Son, Holy Ghost” isn’t a recommended listen if you’re looking for a pick-me-up. Although the first few tracks offer some pop levity, the album takes a dark turn pretty suddenly. The overarching themes here are of loss and yearning, and the final product, though beautiful, is much more suited for lonely airport-terminal introspection than a morning jog.

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