Posts Tagged ‘music reviews’

They said you were hot stuff: on the “Baby’s On Fire” sequence from Velvet Goldmine

Monday, January 5th, 2015

I Was a Teenage Velvet Goldmine Skeptic. Not quite teenage, I suppose — I’d already turned 20 by the time of the film’s autumn 1998 release — but my musical mindset was still adolescent in essence. Precariously poised between poseurs and mainstream morons, I believed, there existed a sweet spot of authentically alternative art, of real rock and roll rebellion. This was a place you could live, provided you worked relentlessly to refine your taste to its essentials, and then never, ever fucking budged. One and a half post-poptimism decades later I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how needlessly dreary and exhausting an approach this is, but my own Pauline conversion was still a few years in the future. That road to pop-cultural Damascus had many side streets. But if you were to retrace the route — starting with My First Pop Divas Kylie and Beyoncé, working back through electroclash and the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City soundtracks, traversing all the ‘80s pop and ‘70s rock I’d never before gone near, and converging at David Bowie, the artist whose breathless, liberating adoption and deletion of influences and imagery at opened up my avenues to all of the above — the road would begin with a chance late-night Cinemax channel flip and my second encounter with Todd Haynes’s glam fantasia Velvet Goldmine. It’s no exaggeration to say that that viewing changed my life. The only thing it had in common with my first viewing of the film — a head-scratching, yawn-suppressing affair in the campus art-house during its brief bomb of a theatrical run, at which I pronounced it an overinflated, pointlessly complex dud that committed the cardinal sin of not rocking hard enough — was this: I loved the “Baby’s On Fire” sequence, the movie’s centerpiece, its beating heart, its throbbing loins.

Famously, Velvet Goldmine is to David Bowie what Citizen Kane (from which it stole its structure) is to William Randolph Hearst. To use a more recent example, and a more accurate one given how both films center a fictional, emotionally overwhelming relationship between two men, it is to Bowie what The Master is to L. Ron Hubbard. In place of Joaquin Phoenix’s giggling alcoholic damage case, VG puts forward Ewan MacGregor’s American rock’n’roll animal Curt Wild as the foil to its central celebrity stand-in, Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s Brian Slade. Though primarily an Iggy Pop manqué, Wild will, throughout the course of the movie, incorporate elements of Lou Reed’s biography, Oscar Wilde’s name, Kurt Cobain’s name andlooks, and Bowie’s own post-glam Berlin period. The moniker for Meyers’s Bowie figure similarly references fellow glitter luminaries Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, and the band Slade; if we were to pick apart “Maxwell Demon and the Venus in Furs,” Brian’s alien-messiah persona and his house band, we’d be here all night.

This Russian nesting-doll layering of references to icons of rock, film, and literature is an annotator’s dream, to be sure. But more importantly, it enables Haynes to make a movie not about Bowie, Iggy, and glam, but about the idea of them, doing so by constructing them from a continuum of related ideas. Velvet Goldmine is about artifice as art and fandom as fantasy, and a love letter to the artists who introduced a young Haynes to these sensations as he came to terms with life as a young gay man. The “Baby’s On Fire” sequence is where that letter gets sealed with a kiss.

I wrote about my favorite sequence from one of my favorite movies, the Velvet Goldmine montage sequence scored by Jonathan Rhys Meyers/Venus in Furs cover of Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire,” for One Week One Band’s special soundtrack spectacular.

Music Time: Nine Inch Nails, Barclays Center, October 14 2013

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

Nine Inch Nails’ 20th-century iteration was a matter of excess. It was excess of abandon during the Broken and Downward Spiral period — smashed instruments, trashed dressing rooms, primal screams on the records. And it was excess of ambition during that era’s summary statement, The Fragile — live-in recording studios, Bob Ezrin on the boards, a level of sonic perfectionism that literally drove Trent Reznor to drink.

Since the band’s post-sobriety return with 2005′s With Teeth, however, Nine Inch Nails has been about keeping control. With Teeth pared the act down to a tight, pummeling rock-band model, one that remains a centerpiece of its live shows. Year Zero belied its concept-album dystopia with a quick-and-dirty recording process — a couple of laptops on a tour bus, pretty much. Ghosts may have been an instrumental triple album, but each track was more of a sketch than a song. The Slip blended several of these modes.

The pattern culminated in Hesitation Marks. It’s a throwback to The Downward Spiral and The Fragile in terms of its visual and sonic vibe, but lyrically it’s a contemplation and rejection of the Reznor of that period. It’s about an emotional life he now has control over, and his fear of losing his grip the way he once did. All told, the career trajectory that emerges from juxtaposing these eras evinces a great deal of thought about what this band does and what it means to its architect.

Nine Inch Nails’ live show reflects that care and attention. It starts in full muscular rock-band mode, with stark white lighting that’s equally no-nonsense. When the set expands to encompass more expansive material from Hesitation Marks and The Fragile, a pair of backup singers are added — their first vocals got a big audience pop, since that’s pretty much the last thing anyone expects at a Nine Inch Nails show, but for the most part they serve to unobtrusively shore up and support Reznor’s vocals, which often play off subtle but crucial harmonies or calls-and-responses in the songs’ studio version that have traditionally been lost in live translation.

A digital light show of genuinely stunning sophistication and ambition fleshes out the visuals accordingly, rivaling if not surpassing your widescreen rock band of choice for sheer spectacle. But again, the range of effects is carefully considered, primarily involving shifting digital colors, three-dimensional wire frames, and silhouettes. It’s evocative but non-narrative, designed to command audience attention during lesser-known or more difficult songs.

The lighting cues often get very specific, highlighting individual musicians in frequently unorthodox ways: I think pretty much every trick in the book was used to spotlight drummer Ilan Rubin except an actual spotlight, while one memorable solo from guitarist Robin Finck was reverse-spotlighted, a digital projection sort of burning away to blackness as he played. Bassist Pino Palladino, who takes his on-stage comportment cues from the similarly stoic John Entwistle (whom he’s replaced in the Who), is barely ever lit at all.

And for all its high technology, a couple of its strongest moments were callbacks to the band’s rich design history: a Batsignal-like projection of the classic NIN logo ended the main set during the final notes of “Head Like a Hole,” while the encore’s closing performance of “Hurt” was accompanied by the same black-and-white montage of disturbing images that ran when the band played the song during the Downward Spiral’s arena tour nineteen years ago. It’s a clever way to emphasize the time period during which his relationship with the largest segment of his audience was forged, while connecting it visually to his more recent and forward-thinking work — a capstone for a thoughtful, frequently spectacular show that incorporates the person he was then into the artist he is now.

Why Boards of Canada are the Game of Thrones of Electronic Music

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Two great tastes that taste great together: Over at BuzzFeed Music, I wrote about the ways in which the music and career of the great Scottish eletronic-music duo Boards of Canada, whose excellent first album in eight years Tomorrow’s Harvest came out this week, mirrors the A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones phenomenon.

Music Time: David Bowie – The Next Day

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

David Bowie’s been looking back at himself in his music for at least 16 years, but this is the first time he’s doing it as an artist who’s actually, legitimately, honest-to-god old. At a dashing-looking 66, he’s hardly ready for the record books as World’s Most Decrepit Rocker, but in the past you’d get the impression that to Bowie, being “old” simply meant wrestling with the reality of no longer being the sexual provocateur he was in the early ’70s, the art-rock innovator he was in the late ’70s, or the world-bestriding megastar he became in the early ’80s with Let’s Dance. Now, on his new album, The Next Day, it sounds like “old” means “Jesus, I could have died on an operating table.”

I reviewed David Bowie’s new album for BuzzFeed.

The Feel-Bad Album of the Year

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

I’m depressed. I’ve also been obsessively listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s album ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! These two phenomena are not unrelated. I wrote a piece for BuzzFeed Music explaining why.

My friend and editor Matthew Perpetua put it this way in the hed/dek he crafted for it:

How 2012′s Most Miserable Album Helped Me Through Depression
Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! was the only record that made sense to me when it felt like my world was falling apart.

It’s something I was building toward writing for months and I hope you like it.

The Superheroics of Muse

Friday, November 30th, 2012

I wrote a piece on Muse as legacy superheroes and Matt Bellamy’s voice as their superpower for BuzzFeed Music. The piece was pitched to me as “What is the essence of Muse? What is it people like about them beyond sounding like Queen and Radiohead?” This is what I came up with. Big thanks to my pal Matthew Perpetua for whipping it into shape.

Let your body move to the music

Monday, November 26th, 2012

I wrote about “Vogue” by Madonna for my music tumblr, Cool Practice. The pre-sexual dreams of a starstruck sixth grader are invoked.

I encourage you to listen to the song and watch the video from beginning to end, especially if you haven’t done so in a long time. It’s remarkable how much anticipation and excitement she packs into that thing. It’s a curtain being drawn back on a new world.

Great band name or greatest band name?

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

I wrote about Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and the coolest kid in high school for my music tumblr, Cool Practice. I still love everything about this band — totally inerrant melodic instincts, and that lead bass sound is singular, and the lyrics could not be more practical for the unlucky in love.

(The answer to the above question is Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, but Ned’s is a close second.)

Does anybody remember laughter? / Teenage dreams, so hard to beat

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

I wrote a list of 23 things John Bonham did during the quiet part of “Stairway to Heaven” for BuzzFeed Music. It is ridiculous, and yet I believe an accurate portrait of the John Bonham gestalt. It does not include this astonishing performance of “Kashmir” but you get it here anyway.

Led Zeppelin – Kashmir by bobjd78

I also wrote about “Teenage Kicks” by the Undertones for Cool Practice, my tumblr about music and coolness. Blueballs in music form.

My Top 100 Albums 1996-2011

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

I listed my 100 favorite albums from 1996-2011 for the People’s List at Pitchfork. The image above is a spoiler.

“This is what I turn into when I get very hungry”

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

I wrote about “Rubber Rocket” by Electric Six for Cool Practice, my tumblr about music and coolness. The phrase “post-millennial Steely Dan” is used.

Today on Cool Practice

Friday, July 27th, 2012

I wrote about “Little Earthquakes” by Tori Amos on Cool Practice, my tumblr about music and coolness. I’ve been doing a lot of that kind of writing lately where you feel so strongly about a thing that you find yourself at a loss for words, so then you realize you have to make up the words for it.