Archive by Author | Elijah

Has Arcade Fire taken over the world? No, but that was never the plan.

By now this is old news, but we’ll just say I was very busy on St Valentine’s Day (I had a date with Karl Barth).  Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs, which Greg and I placed at numbers three and six in our respective Best Albums of 2010 lists, won Album of the Year at the 53rd Grammy Awards, one of the record industry’s highest honours.  Arcade Fire beat out industrial giants Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry (I’m so tempted to just write ‘Lady Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga and Lady Perry’…) to take their seven little gramophone trophies home.

The indie blogosphere (as well as some very interesting backlash from those who had never heard of Arcade Fire before the 53rd Grammy Awards) has been set ablaze by the news, with the A.V. Club’s Steven Hyden writing,

Who cares about the Grammys?  It’s probably the least respected of all the major entertainment awards—which means it’s in the running for least respected institution anywhere—and yet a lot of people are going to be attaching a lot of significance to Arcade Fire winning album of the year honors for The Suburbs Sunday night. […] Does this signify the full-scale “arrival” of indie rock at the center of mainstream music?  Has Arcade Fire officially taken over the mantle as this generation’s defining rock band?  Does this mean that “we” won?  Be prepared to read all kinds of ruminations on these questions and many more in the days ahead.

It’s not my goal to have any groundbreaking things to say about this award, but I do think it’s interesting to point out that The Suburb‘s record sales were not what we may consider modest.  They reached number 1 on several international charts, including album charts in Belgium (Vlaanderen), their ‘native’ Canada, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, the UK and America (Billboard 200).  In recent history, several independent records have been performing well on the charts (namely Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Vampire Weekend’s Contra and The Decemberists The King is Dead), which gives some hope to those wishing to provide an affirmative answer to the question, ‘Does this mean that [the independent music scene] won?’

But the reality is that at the end of the day Arcade Fire and these other independent bands are selling a lot less music than the other nominees for Album of the Year (Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster went platinum in 11 countries, eight of which were multi-platinum, and diamond in Poland), which does seem to indicate that the ‘war’ between independent and the mainstream is far from over.  But record sales are not the driving force behind independent music, which exists largely in reaction against the massive record industry.  There is no war, and as Arcade Fire bandleader and singer Win Butler said in his acceptance speech before the band performed ‘Ready to Start’, ‘We’re going to play another song because we like music.’  Arcade Fire won Album of the Year at the Grammys – that’s wonderful!  I’m sure that this will inspire more people to invest in their music, which is a great thing.  But in the end, music is about what we like and dare I say, what we love, which has absolutely nothing to do with Grammy Awards.

Here’s a brief Q & A time with the band after the show (via Tom Breihan at Pitchfork):

Lost in the Sewer: Steve Duncan, Urban Explorer

Steve Duncan in NYC's Croton Aqueduct, 2006 (photo by Duncan, from NPR)

Despite a popular modern attitude of disparagement regarding cities, placing the urban at odds with that which is natural, the promotion of the urban is one of my greatest interests.  A while back on my and Greg’s former blog, Criticism As Inspiration, I decided to write a short series of posts concerning some of my favourite [non-trespassing] adventures from Los Angeles (beginning with parts of Griffith Park  with the intention of becoming more unconventional/climactic as the series progressed).  I ultimately aborted the series  after the initial post because I realised it wasn’t exactly suitable content for the CAI blog.  Even so, one of my most favourite pastimes is ‘urban exploration’ – exploring that which is typically overlooked, ignored and shunned for being banal, strictly functional and ugly.

The popularity of urban exploration is on the rise and I suspect that many incredibly curious city-dwellers have been doing this sort of thing for a long time (I’m pretty certain Fagin knew all the good underground routes in London).  Among contemporary urban explorers, 32-year-old Steve Duncan is one of the most notable.  Duncan is not merely a thrill-seeker, but is deeply concerned with urban history  and development (he’s currently working on his PhD in urban history at the University of California, Riverside) and preserving these urban sites he so cherishes.

This past weekend I caught All Things Considered on NPR and was pleasantly surprised by a story about this hero of mine: ‘Into the Tunnels: Exploring the Underside of NYC‘.  For this story, NPR’s Jacki Lyden  and producer Brent Baughman join Duncan for [most of] a 25-mile excursion beneath New York City, wading through raw sewage, crawling among rats and cockroaches, jumping over third rails and evading police.  Duncan, Lyden and Baughman are joined by world-famous Norwegian adventurer, explorer and author Erling Kagge (he’s climbed Everest, hiked to the South Pole, and became the first person to walk alone to the North Pole, just to name a few of his accomplishments).

I strongly urge you to read the article and listen to the 20-minute broadcast if you have not already!

Duncan was also recently joined for an adventure under NYC by HDSLR director/cinematographer Andrew Wonder, which is documented in this 30-minute video entitled ‘UNDERCITY’, which is definitely worth a view.

Welcome to November

Every once in a while it is suitable to give a brief update on the inner-workings of the blog and its contributors.  November is upon us and autumn is in full swing.  While I failed to publish a single post in the month of October, Greg more than made up for it with several excellent posts (including an amazing playlist of music from 2010 thus far and a very interesting and insightful look at Sufjan Stevens’ excellent new record, Age of Adz – thank you Greg for picking up my slack!).  But if you’re really thirsty for more discussion on the ‘Hipster Christianity’ theme that Greg has featured in two posts in September (‘“Hipster” “Christianity”: a “review”‘ and ‘Mocking Hipster Faith‘), I have done a book review of Brett McCracken’s book Hipster Christianity for the blog Transpostions which can be viewed here.

Some exciting news from the blog can be found in the address bar of your internet browser: ‘lostinthecloudblog.com‘!  Because we so love this conversation with our readers on LITC, we’ve decided to take this up a notch and acquire an official domain name.  So update your bookmark menu and the links to our blog that you constantly pass around to your friends (who are we kidding – we know none of you do this…).

As Greg has hinted, we are rapidly approaching the end of 2010, which means one thing here on LITC: MORE LISTS.  Concerning music specifically, this has been an excellent year to be an active collector and listener.  I can promise that at the end of this year I will be making several significant modifications to my Top 20 Bands and Top 50 Albums lists.  As we share our favourites with you, we’d love to hear your favourites (please enlighten us).

Thank you to all who regularly visit and contribute to our blog.  It is likely that in our lameness Greg and I would keep doing this blog even if he and I were the only two people who ever looked at it, but all of you really help us to bring these issues—however serious or silly—into a broader conversation, giving us insights and perspectives that we might not have otherwise encountered.  And we love it.

Helicopter Megaphone

The new Deerhunter album, Halcyon Digest, was released this week and I seized the opportunity to purchase it at Avalanche during a quick trip to Edinburgh on Monday.  The album as a whole is excellent and it will surely find a place near the top of my favourite records released this year.  The artwork is intriguing, with the fold-out insert designed in the fashion of an underground newspaper or zine.  All of the lyrics to the individual tracks are written on this insert with an additional bit before the eighth track, ‘Helicopter’.  Before the lyrics this short article appears, reprinted in the album artwork with permission from Dennis Cooper:

Dima (real name Dimitry Marakov) was born in 1986 in the town of Nalchik, Russia.  From a young age, he dreamed of working in the fashion industry as a designer.  Lacking the moral or financial support of his parents, he actively sought out contacts within the industry through the internet.   At the age of 14, he became acquainted with a successful fashion photographer in St. Petersburg who invited the boy to come live with him and work as his assistant.  Dima accepted the offer and moved in with the photographer.  According to friends of Dima, he became the older man’s lover for approximately the next year.  He eventually grew dissatisfied with the lack of benefits he had been promised would result from the arrangement.  He left the photographer to become live-in lovers with a wealthy man who provided the financial backing for a conglomerate of pornographic gay websites.  It was at this point that Dimitry adopted the stage name Dima and, with the help of false documents that corrected his age to the legal 18, began a successful career modeling naked and starring in hardcore sex videos on the gay websites financed by his lover.

Between the age of 15 and 18, Dima was a highly sought after pornographic model and performer.  He saved the money he made from modeling to pay for the tuition at a leading college of fashion that he hoped to attend when he reached 18.  At a certain point, Dima began supplementing his income by renting himself out as an escort within his lover’s circle of associates and acquaintances.  According to friends of Dima, they included several leading figures in the entertainment industry as well as one of the most powerful men in Russia’s world of organized crime.  Dima began to express concern to his friends that the organized crime figure had become obsessed with him, but he refused to accept their advice to stop seeing the man because of the large amount of money these dates were earning him.  Sometime in 2005, Dima abruptly left his lover, gave up his modeling career, cut off all communication with his friends, and moved in with the organized crime figure.  The last public Dima sighting was late that year when his friend Ignat Lebedev, who was also working as a male escort at the time, accompanied a client to a private sex club where he claims to have witnessed a very thin and confused looking Dima being forcibly sodomized by a group of perhaps ten to fifteen men.  Lebedev claims his client identified one of the men as the organized crime figure and dissuaded him from speaking to Dima for his own protection.

Lebedev claims he described what he’d seen to Dima’s former lover and was told Dima had been killed the previous week and that he shouldn’t speak of this again.  Lebedev reported both incidents to the police, but after interviewing the lover and being told Lebedev had made the story up, they declined to investigate the matter.  In 2006, Lebedev persuaded a prominent Russian gay journalist to write an article on Dima’s disappearance, but during the course of investigating the story, the writer was abducted by unknown assailants, beaten, and told he would be murdered if he wrote the story.  Dima has not been seen or reliably heard from in three years, although in early 2007 another organized crime figure, Evgeny Ershova, who was awaiting trial on an unrelated murder charge, claimed that in late 2005 he witnessed a young male prostitute matching Dima’s description be pushed out of a helicopter over a remote forest in the north of Russia.  Before Dima’s ex-lover died of lung cancer in late 2007, he reportedly confessed to friends that Dima was sold as a sex slave to a man in the Ukraine in late 2005 and had lived until late 2006 when he’d committed suicide.

The actual song—shared in the video below, which was released earlier this month—contains heartbreaking lyrics from the perspective of Dima.  Principle songwriter Bradford Cox beautifully delivers these sorrowful words of exploitation, abuse, helplessness, isolation and loneliness, which prove to be all the more sobering when heard in light of the article above.

Dima’s story is incredibly heartbreaking, and while he lost his life at the hands of those who would oppress, Deerhunter reminds us of the unfathomable struggle faced by those around the world that presently experience the horror of human trafficking.

Thank you Deerhunter for speaking for those who have no voice and for doing so in such a creative and effective manner. May we all be challenged to do the same and to seek to protect all people.

Top 20 Bands: 1

1. Bob Dylan

Surprise, surprise – Bob Dylan is my favourite ‘band’.  From a critical perspective, Dylan’s monumental place in the history of popular music is indisputable, yet despite his massive popularity and critical enshrinement, he is and has ever been elusive, in a constant state of artistic evolution.  In Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home, Dylan states, ‘I had ambitions to set out to find…this home that I’d left a while back. … I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be so I’m on my way home.’

In Greenwich Village, the epicentre of the post-McCarthy folk revival in the early sixties, Dylan would pick out which performers were ‘doing it for real’ and then pick up how they were doing it.  Dylan states regarding performers he admired, ‘[There] was something in their eyes that said “I know something you don’t know” and I wanted to be that kind of performer.’  He describes the folk scene in the early 60s as divided into two camps: pop music for college kids and intellectual folk music – Dylan considered himself neither.  In his 2006 autobiography Chronicles, Volume One he writes,’ There were a lot better singers and musicians around [Greenwich Village] but there wasn’t anybody close in nature to what I was doing.’ (London: Pocket Books, 18)

Eventually Dylan’s uniqueness brought him to the attention of Columbia Records’ John Hammond and although Dylan’s voice was not the standard at Columbia—home to the beautiful voices of those like Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis—Hammond’s track record for sales convinced the executives at Columbia that Dylan would be worth their investment.  It was with Columbia that Dylan’s massive repertoire (over 600 original compositions) would take off and progress over the course of the last half-century.

Throughout his career Dylan’s music has undergone several significant shifts.  In 1965 he ‘went electric’ with Bringing It All Back Home. This transition brought about accusations of ‘going commercial’ for money and fame.  Famously, one audience member criticised Dylan, exclaiming ‘Judas!’ during a now-infamous performance at Royal Albert Hall in 1966.

In a 1965 interview with the Chicago Daily News, Dylan stated, ‘I’ve never followed any trend, I just haven’t the time to follow a trend.  It’s useless to even try.’  Instead, Dylan saw his ‘going electric’ as a natural progression from his earlier style.  In No Direction Home, he states, ‘An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. … You’re constantly in a state of becoming.’

In 1966, not long after the release of his third electric record, Blonde on Blonde, Dylan was injured badly in a motorcycle accident.  ‘Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race,’ Dylan writes.  ‘Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on.’  (Chronicles, 114)  He refrained from touring for the next eight years, but still wrote and recorded prolifically.  During this time he returned to more traditional roots and explored country music with several excellent pieces such as ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’, ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’, ‘If Not For You’ and ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, but had not achieved a significant amount of critical or commercial success—at least anything that could be likened to the success of his earlier material—until the release of Blood on the Tracks in 1975.

Dylan describes Blood on the Tracks as a product of his ‘painting period’ in which the songs were more ‘like a painter would paint’ rather than those a musician would compose.  In The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, Carrie Brownstein writes, ‘By examining music from a visual perspective, with colours and lines instead of notes and chords, Dylan laid out on the canvas what would be Blood on the Tracks.’  (Kevin J. H. Dettmar, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, Part I [Cambridge: Cambridge, 2009], 157).

As can be observed from many of his early influences such as Hank Williams’ ‘When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels’ and Woody Guthrie’s ‘Jesus Christ’, Dylan was not unfamiliar with the usage of religious motifs.  He employed them in his own work on a regular basis, as is the case with ‘Masters of War’, ‘With God on Our Side’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, etc.  At the time, these expressions were not so much a matter of Dylan’s personal faith as they were the custom of the tradition he was drawing from and his employment of the language of a largely ‘Christian’-literate American society.  But by the mid-seventies Dylan began to gain greater interest in religion and God.  In a 1975 interview for People magazine Dylan expressed, ‘I’m doing God’s work.  That’s all I know.’  Dylan’s interest in faith continued to grow in the late 70s and he converted to Christianity in 1978.  Not long after this he began work on his first ‘born-again’ record, Slow Train Coming.  Regardless of however outspoken and off-putting Dylan’s conversion might have been to many fans at the time, the single ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ earned him his first Grammy Award for ‘Best Vocal Performance’ in 1979.

As Dylan had unwittingly become the spokesperson for the folk elitists in the early sixties, he found himself in a similar predicament with regard to the religious community in the eighties.  With his 1983 release, Infidels, Dylan began distancing himself from any explicit avowal of faith and the institutions to which he was inevitably linked.  After Infidels, Dylan experienced what may be considered a creative, critical and commercial lull.  In 1997 he released his ‘comeback’ album Time Out of Mind, which was followed by a string of successes: “Love and Theft” (2001), Modern Times (2006) and Together Through Life (2009).  In No Direction Home, artist, musician and friend of Dylan, Bob Neuwirth comments, ‘I think [Dylan] always made exactly the work he wanted to make at the time he wanted to make it. The audience came to Bob.’

While I can’t deny that his work from the mid-eighties through the early-nineties is not my favourite, the magic of Dylan’s music and his ability to constantly reinvent himself en route to ‘becoming’ have significantly shaped the way I see music and how I both personally and creatively interact with the world.  Because of this profound and unparalleled impact in my life he belongs nowhere but in this number one slot.

Three of his records can be found on my Top 50 Albums list (and actually reveal my partiality to his earlier material): The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964) and Blonde on Blonde (1966).

‘Chimes of Freedom’ from Another Side of Bob Dylan, live at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964:

‘Like A Rolling Stone’ from Highway 61 Revisited, live at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965:

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In addition to his massive discography, here are some titles of suggested books and films related to Dylan:

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Top 20 Bands (as of May 2012)

  1. Bob Dylan
  2. Elliott Smith
  3. Sufjan Stevens
  4. Belle & Sebastian
  5. Radiohead
  6. The Smiths/Morrissey
  7. Converge
  8. Pink Floyd
  9. The Clash
  10. Grandaddy
  11. The Beatles/George Harrison
  12. The Beach Boys
  13. The Kinks
  14. Neil Young
  15. Tom Waits
  16. The Velvet Underground
  17. Danielson/Daniel Smith
  18. Sebadoh/Lou Barlow
  19. Spiritualized
  20. Descendents

Top 20 Bands: [‘What If’ Creed was] 1!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

1. Creed

This one should be no shock to my readers.  Creed is undeniably the best band in history.  Why?  There are countless reasons, but I need point you no further than the phenomenal 1999 song ‘What If’:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: any song that repeats its own title 53 times is absolutely brilliant in my book.

No, not really – Creed is wretched. Number one will be published tomorrow and it will most likely be no surprise to faithful LITC readers…

This is worth watching (but I apologise beforehand for some of the language):

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Read my real Top 20 Bands posts:

20 & 19, 18 & 17, 16 & 15, 14 & 13, 12 & 11, 10 & 9, 8 & 7, 6 & 5, 4, 3, 2

Top 20 Bands: 2

2. Elliott Smith

For anyone familiar with this blog, these last few rankings should come as no surprise.  Elliott Smith has been the subject of two posts in the past (‘Elliott Smith, Intercessory Psalmist‘ and ‘Happy 41st, Elliott’) and is deserving of many more, including this one.  Elliott’s music is extremely well-crafted, revealing a genius of a high order.  His musical abilities are only overshadowed by his profoundly intimate songwriting.

In addition to his inclusion here at number two in my Top 20 Bands, I’ve also committed myself to an obsessive Top 50 Elliott Smith Songs list.  His 2000 record Figure 8 was ranked as my third favourite record released between 2000 and 2009.  Along with Figure 8, two more of his records can be found on my Top 50 Albums list: Elliott Smith (1995) and Either/Or (1997).

‘Between the Bars’ from the album Either/Or, live recording from the 1997 short film Lucky Three:

‘Son of Sam’ from Figure 8:

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Top 20 Bands: 20 & 19, 18 & 17, 16 & 15, 14 & 13, 12 & 11, 10 & 9, 8 & 7, 6 & 5, 4, 3