Thursday, July 30, 2015

Blah Night in the Meat Asylum

You know, 90s alt-rock isn't aging too well.
I recently saw the Meat Puppets and Soul Asylum in San Francisco, and it was underwhelming. I'd first seen the Meat Puppets when the Brothers Kirkwood, clad in ladies' summer dresses, were banging two bass guitars together and making a mighty racket, opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in like 1990 or so. I then saw them at McCabe's guitar shoppe in Los Angeles, and they were great -- this was the core lineup of the Kirkwood Bros. and drummer Derrick Bostrom, around the time Forbidden Places was released. They played lotsa good stuff, old and new (at the time). They had come out to L.A. from Arizona in two VW microbuses. (The Meat Puppets have been called by Dean Ween "the Grateful Dead of our generation" -- yuck! -- but I've always liked how they were hard to pin down and categorize. They can be super-mellow, super-punky, and usually-melodic; but one Grateful Dead is bad enough (and there was a small squadron of hippies at the SF show helping to ruin things), so let's not make it worse, Deaner.)


There were definitely more people at the show for the MPs than SA; this incarnation of the MPs featured the Bros. Kirkwood and Curt's son, Elmo. Elmo was a solid rhythm guitarist, but he did a bit too much hair-flipping and rock star moves for me. I was reminded of Ozzy Osbourne's pudgy, spoiled son Jack, another son of rock royalty. The Puppets played all their hits -- "Lake of Fire," "Plateau," "Oh, Me," "Sam," "Up on the Sun," and "Backwater" -- and lots of strange covers (Beach Boys; country songs), and lots of long, jam-bandy instrumentals (ugh). Given the prolificness of their career, and the fact that some of their strongest output has been the period in the 2000s and beyond once Cris returned to the band after his heroin and prison hiatus in the late 90s, I was disappointed in the set list. There are so many awesome, melodic, catchy songs from Rise to Your Knees, Lollipop, Rat Farm, and Sewn Together that they could've played, but chose not to. But MPs were the stronger band that night, and it's always good to see them. As the gf said, they have a more timeless sound than SA. There was no interaction between MPs and SA, like a shared song or something, which made me wonder how the two bands were getting along or not. SA had a big fancy tour bus outside and multiple assistants/techs; the MPs had a van and hung out after they played outside on the sidewalk, keeping to that punk rock accessibility that I admire. No assistants on stage -- they just got on stage and played. Curt did kinda fuck up "Lake of Fire," though, so I'm wondering if the Puppets are getting on a bit in years and their rock n roll lifestyle has caught up to them.... 

A really good Soul Asylum album just before they jumped the shark. (OK, Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode In On is pretty good, too.)

I used to think Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum had some supernatural gift for songwriting and insight into the human condition (which, especially on SA's earlier output, he does), but he just seems kinda rock star douchey now. He did some canned, cheesy talking interaction with his 600-lb Black drummer (who looked about to die of cardiac arrest at any moment), played a bad guitar solo, and just seemed like a caricature of his former self. Plus, he is the only original SA member, and as my friend Brian said, "It's not Soul Asylum without Dan Murphy." I'm used to seeing SA as original drummer Grant Young, bassist Karl Mueller (RIP), Murphy, and Pirner. Pirner did say a nice thing about Mueller before playing "Without a Trace," so that was cool. But the set list was heavily Grave Dancers Union and later, and there's just so much good stuff pre-GDU. I didn't end up staying for the whole set, and it appeared others had the same idea. Plus, there were people in the audience doing coke in front of us, which just created a real cheesy, bad vibe. 

Overall, pretty disappointing show, or maybe an off night. Or maybe these bands have sailed past their heyday. Still, there are some great records to enjoy -- pretty much the Puppets' whole canon, and early SA.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Cotton Candy Guy and the Beauty of Loops

So I stumbled upon a .gif -- and reverse .gif -- of a guy "excitedly eating cotton candy" (as one source put it) that is pretty mesmerizing. Below is a clever Mission: Impossible tv show intro that someone hacked the Cotton Candy Guy into. Try to find the original forward and backwards .gifs if you can, as people have been speeding up the real-timeness of this classic clip.

Monday, July 13, 2015

It Must Be Summer: the Big Dumb Blockbuster Movies Are Out


It's amazing what $150 million can produce: the awesome, memorable, unique Mad Max: Fury Road, or the silly, forgettable, played-out Terminator Genisys. I saw the latter recently, because once you've seen all four preceding it, you are kind of locked into it. 

Terminator Genisys isn't all bad. Sure: it's a big, dumb, special effects-laden, nonsensical, one-liner summer movie. It evidently has an actress from Game of Thrones in it, a show I've never seen (I played Settlers of Cataan for the first time this weekend, so I'm kind of maxed out on dork stuff right now.) There's lots of eye candy, and a few ideas in it to stimulate the neurons of even the dumbest viewer. I did like the idea that, rather than linear time travel (past, present, future), the events of a previous film (TG focuses on the first and second Terminator films, largely ignoring the 3rd and 4th, wisely) could be altered by alternate events along different, potential timelines. This is actually in accordance with Schrodinger's Cat and its heady idea that, in the thought experiment, a cat could be both alive and dead. At the subatomic level, the most fundamental particles of existence appear to occupy two locations at once, or be jumping between two states at the same time. This could mean that there are different potential realities -- timelines -- occurring all the time. 


But let's not give TG too much credit: for time-travel movies, it's far more The Time Machine, that colossal stinker feat. Guy Pearce, than it is the better-made and scientifically-sounder Primer or Timecrimes. One aspect of TG I liked was how it recreated scenes from the first Terminator film -- as there's little worse than movies that feature flashbacks to previous films in the franchise, like Rocky or Friday the 13th -- but there were slight differences. The L.A. observatory punks* from Terminator are slightly different, and even things like the length of the black garbage collector's cigar are noticeable (more of a stub in the original film). This reminded me of philosopher Stanley Cavell and his book about film, The World Viewed. Interestingly, Cavell wrote about movies, but not in an authoritative, excruciatingly-researched way -- he wrote about movies he saw as he remembered them, not as they necessarily factually are. In the original Term film, Bill Paxton plays a punk with spiky hair and makeup on his face simulating a tire tread (awesome!), but in TG, the "Bill Paxton" punk has a mohawk. Do these little details/differences make a difference? Maybe yes, maybe no, but they do play on memory and how we as individuals tend to remember things differently and remember things in accordance with one another.

Also -- and this is the curse of my hyper-observantness -- there was something in a background scene of the recreated 1984 of the first film I found interesting: a blue pyramid with a yellow X through it. Probably meaningless, but since the whole Terminator idea is that machines/technology/hardware/software becomes self-aware, united, and homicidal against humans -- a kind of nightmare Singularity scenario -- one could almost read in this pyramid a simple symbol for current San Francisco (where the latter half of the film takes place!), where tech is the top of the social pyramid, as an anti-tech symbol. In the Terminator world, who's responsible for tech getting out of control? Well, of course, the humans who developed and harnessed tech, like the Miles Dyson character of T2. Anyone who reads this blog knows I frequently reference the Crimethinc "capitalism is a pyramid scheme" social pyramid image, and if you think about it, the symbol in TG is pretty clear: since tech is the near the top of the social pyramid right now, and tech causes the robot/machine uprising in the films' narratives, then the whole social pyramid with tech toward the top is questionable and should be revamped. Was it a little symbol snuck in? Does it have meaning or is it random? I dunno, but I noticed it, perhaps because I think the pyramid is a great way to represent modern civilizations such as ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, and American society, and this is how I read that particular part of the movie.

But these are deep thoughts I'm bringing to an un-deep, muddled, comic book movie that we can only hope is the last in the Terminator franchise. iO9 has the best take on it I've seen yet, nailing the confusion and problems with the film in a funny way. My gf refuses to support anything Ahnoldt does, because of how he "terminated" Stan "Tookie" Williams at San Quentin when he was Governor. I admire this about her -- I feel the same way about Dianne Shitstain, er, Dianne Feinstein, who mistreated punks when she was Mayor of San Francisco in the early 80s.

Anyway, I'm pretty tired of apocalyptic movies that feature some kind of pivotal action on the Golden Gate Bridge. And while the first two Terminator movies were compelling (and relatively cohesive), the franchise falls apart after that. Time to terminate the Terminator. This latest film was good for a few half-assed ideas and gag lines (Ahnoldt's good Terminator T800 is named "Pops"), but that's about it. It certainly wasn't worth the price of admission. Hasta la vista, bay-bee. (But maybe since it didn't feature child-star-gone-wrong Edward Furlong, flipping his hair and going through puberty onscreen, it's a masterpiece.)

* Whether it's TG or the original film, I won't go into the representation of punks, which is negative in both, and unfortunate. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Reggie!


For some reason this candy bar from the 70s came up in conversation today. I remember eating these things at the public pool in the summer. 25 cents, so I could afford them with my meager child allowance, and they were tasty as fuck.

Very meta: Reggie Jackson beholds a candy bar of his own namesake. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A walk through San Francisco's Tenderloin and tech enclaves


I don't know if I'm just noticing it because I work in a compact city that has a mind-blowing division between extreme affluence and extreme poverty and deprivation, but yesterday I was in the notorious (and relatively unchanging) Tenderloin part of San Francisco, then found myself in a wealthy white enclave of upscale shops on Hayes Street off of Van Ness (Hayes Valley). The two worlds could not be more different, and I haven't seen that kind of juxtaposition since seeing how only a big culvert divides Tijuana from the United States. In San Francisco, I definitely noticed the ol' capitalistic pyramid in action.


The Tenderloin is like the street-level existence depicted at almost the very bottom of the pyramid; Hayes Valley -- and I also went to the market underneath Twitter -- is definitely toward the pyramid's upper reaches. The Tenderloin smelled like a port-o-potty; hypodermic needle caps abounded; I saw human shit on the sidewalk; all kinds of broken-down people milled about (disproportionately people of color); I watched a man eat a microwave burrito in a daze with the plastic wrapper on his foot. It's a place of dirtiness, vice, and disease, captured well in William T. Vollmann's book Whores for Gloria

The market underneath Twitter is completely overpriced, selling the finest, best foods to a largely white tech elite. It's uber-clean, fancy, erudite, exclusive. The amazing thing is that these neighborhoods are almost walking distance from each other (if you're an ambitious walker) or easily accessible via BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). Tech is interesting in SF: it seems like the purpose of tech enclaves such as the Twitter market or other areas where tech dominates is to keep its type of people 1) pampered, 2) isolated from the harsher realities of the real world outside the tech bubble. Like the New Order Republic album image above, it amazes me the physical environments, priorities, languages, ambiences, and worldviews of each subculture, and how diametrically opposed they are -- yet how geographically close!* Even if you're the most hardcore existentialist and/or Social Darwinist, I'd challenge you to experience both these neighborhoods in one day and not find something wrong with the picture**. One group has too much, and the other group has too little. One lives in pampered isolation, and the other in disturbing poverty. Has this not been the case in great civilizations that have ultimately fallen hard, such as ancient Rome and Egypt, this stark division in wealth? 

* There has been a strong backlash in the Bay Area against tech companies busing their employees around in private buses. One of the reasons for this is that privately transporting a tech elite keeps them from having to commute with the rest of us, in public arenas like BART, which is a great equalizer of people. We may live and work and play in silos, our own little worlds, but we intermix when we travel the same routes -- especially on public transportation, where we can't stay in our own little world in our car. On a crowded BART train, we have to interact -- we can't not notice one another. We have to see, smell, hear one another. This is one of the reasons I use BART in the first place. I think it's very important for people to move fluidly between the silos we tend to stay comfortably isolated in, so that we stay shaken up, tolerant, awake, and aware. 

** There is of course the Buddhist perspective that nothing is wrong with the picture; we can accept reality as it is, if we choose. We don't necessarily agree or disagree with said reality, but we accept it.

UPDATE: I learned that the original drummer of the Dead Kennedys, Bruce Slesinger, is now an architect who designed The Market underneath Twitter. Talk about going from one world to a whole other. It's especially ironic since SF's then-mayor Feinstein was so notoriously shitty toward punks, and now Bruce is apparently part of the upper crust that is reshaping the city and making it a playground for the wealthy elite, while the lesser-fortunate get displaced and gentrified. Apparently, back in the day, Bruce left the DKs to pursue architecture, which allowed D.H. Peligro to fill the drummer slot. (I've always thought of the classic DK lineup as Jello, East Bay Ray, Klaus Fluoride, and D.H., but that's probably 'cause I got into the DKs in haphazard fashion, first hearing their final album, Bedtime for Democracy. Bruce -- as "Ted" -- drummed on the first, classic DK album.) I wanna say "Shame, Bruce -- not very punk rock, being involved with The Market (that name is so pretentious!)", I wanna cry "sellout" -- but, hell, if you're happy, Bruce, that's what matters, I hear.... 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Failure's 'Heart' is Kinda Cold, Missing Something: a Review


In 1993, I saw a trio open for Ween at the Whiskey in Los Angeles. It was good stuff: heavy, dark, melodic, compelling, with vulnerable vocals, unique guitar work, powerful bass and drumming. It was Failure, who had just released their first effort, Comfort. I began listening to and following the band, seeing them on the much-delayed support tour for their magnum opus, Fantastic Planet. I remember that show was $7, and the first show of the tour. Look at the prices of their merchandise now, and boy have things changed. 

After their demise after FP, I checked out Ken Andrews' and Greg Edwards' post-Failure material: it was good, but suffered from that ol' math equation in music that their solo stuff (or Autolux in Edwards' case) was only a fraction as good as Failure was. So it was exciting to see them -- again, the first show of their Tree of Stars Tour, rebooting their career -- and also to know that new material was on the way. The Tree of Stars show was great, with a film homage visual presentation instead of opening bands, Failure sounding great, and a good smorgasbord of material from their first three albums. 

I'm somewhat disappointed by The Heart is a Monster. The album's title takes its name from a line in the song "Petting the Carpet," which hearkens all the way back to Comfort (it was an outtake), and which is found, reworked, on Heart. Failure are trying to start where they left off with the magnificent Fantastic Planet, with lots of "Segue" songs, but the new batch of material sounds less like Failure and more like Ken Andrews meets Autolux. The recording is distracting and painful to my ears: it's so loud, cold, and digital as to be distracting (are they fighting in the loudness wars?). One reviewer noted the recording's "cleaner digital sound," but Failure have always put a lot of emphasis on impeccable production -- the difference is, a warmth from recording with a certain amount of analog back in their heyday is completely absent from the new album. The snare drum especially is clicky and harsh. The album is, like the Pixies or Nine Inch Nails, loud-quiet-loud, but the loud moments are especially harsh. Keep your finger on the volume dial.

Song-wise, I think Andrews/Edwards have to accept that their peak was Fantastic Planet (and even the first two albums, which I think have stood the test of time and are incredible). There are some nice moments on Heart, and I think the strongest song by far is "Counterfeit Sky" (which would've fit nicely in anywhere on their first three albums), and it's certainly nice they're playing again and being more understood musically than they were back in the day, but Heart shows that it's hard to make a comeback. 

I've also noticed a curious thing about Andrews: that, despite his reputation for having a good ear for production, he makes quite a few mistakes when playing live. At the Tree of Stars show I mentioned, he screwed up one of the Magnified "Segue"s; at their first, sold-out reunion show that started the comeback, he screwed up "Smoking Umbrellas;" and when I recently watched them perform (via YouTube) at like a Harley Davidson bbq in Wisconsin or something, he messed up "Saturday Saviour." 


Things got so cold and digital recording the new album that Ken Andrews had to don gloves.

I feel a little bad being so honest and harsh about their new album, because I have a Failure tattoo (an image from their first album) and have been a fan a long time, pretty much since the beginning. I still think they are immensely talented and unique, with an intellectualism not often found in rock music (or space rock or alt-rock or whatever we're calling it). But something is missing: they're just not as edgy and dark as they once were, and I'd much rather listen to four-track versions of their songs (see the excellent Golden) than this new slick, digital slaw they're concocted. This new stuff feels more stylish than substance-based, with abstract lyrics that just aren't as catchy or memorable. Heart feels cobbled together, a strange blend of the old ("Petting the Carpet," "I Can See Houses") and brand new, held together with not-as-good Segues, which sound more like farting-around-in-the-studio than the brilliant Segues that made Magnified and FP a continuous, holistic listening experience. 

Another band I like is the Meat Puppets, and I was just reading about their album Sewn Together. I like Brother Kirkwood's (Curt) approach: "In the 80s, we used to just crap this [music] out. Those SST records cost, like, five grand apiece, if that much, and those are the records [Meat Puppets I, II, Up on the Sun, etc] that made people like us. Now, if I can get away with it, I'll make a record as cheap as I can and put as little work as I can into it, which is what we did with [Sewn Together]. I don't like putting a lot of time into it. We cut a track, and if we've played it halfway right, we're done with it." (punknews.org, 3/27/09) This is the polar opposite of Failure, who labor over their music in the studio and get it radio-friendly and highly produced and polished. But music needs heart as well as polish. Andrews is a digital technician. He's made a post-Failure career being an engineer, mixer, producer, etc. But at one time, he and Edwards were like a postmodern, dark Lennon-McCartney, creating indelible melodies that were well-recorded and had a lot of grit, warmth, and heart. The new Failure has all the Failure hallmarks: Andrews' vulnerable, sometimes ragged voice, spacey, chunky guitars, driving drums, prominent bass, etc, but it just sounds like Failure trying too hard. Something fundamental has changed. Andrews has often spoke negatively of working with Steve Albini, but I think a band like Failure need an outside ear, which Albini provided. Andrews can't simultaneously be in Failure and hear it from the outside, can he?

Failure: I won't give up on you, and I know I can't pine for the good ol' days forever, but I long for some warmth in the new material that's there in the old. The new album's cover is a good indication of the music within: blue, cold, sterile. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.