Among music lovers of my generation (i.e., those who were born when “Star Wars” came out), there are two classic musical pasts. There is the metal past, which has often evolved into a passion for distorted electro and twisted IDM - they’re freaks underneath it all. And then there’s the AOR past, which is a bit hard to break free from and which one always tries to hide, even though owning the “Gilmore Girls” on DVD is more than enough proof. Yes, I belong to that second group. “Hello, my name is Juan Manuel and I used to listen to Mike & The Mechanics.” I confess, okay?
I confess, but, ultimately, without fear. I used to think that the hours spent listening to Phil Collins, Genesis, Mike Oldfield and other examples of the so-called “good music” of the eighties and early nineties weren’t going to sit very well in the world of “serious” music criticism. But lately that AOR education has proven to be very useful when talking about the most sophisticated indie stuff, from Gayngs to Cass McCombs and, of course, Bon Iver. If you’ve never been addicted to the soundtrack of “Backdraft”, you probably don’t know that the last track on the excellent “Bon Iver” (2011) is a tribute to Bruce Hornsby & The Range. Literally: “There’s not enough Hornsby on my scene,” Justin Vernon said to Jimmy Fallon a while ago, on his Late Night. So it’s not uncool anymore. I mean, any musical education will do. Hurrah!
Don’t throw it in the bin
Telepathe is a band that bring back only good memories, one of them being my start at PlayGround. In my first column, then called “Greatest hits at my place”, I talked about “So Fine”, the revelatorary single of these two girls who were somewhere between Cocteau Twins and Ying Yang Twins. I find it strange that “Dance Mother” (from 2009, a mere three quid on Amazon.co.uk now) isn’t considered as the modern classic that it is, just as I find it weird that their return with the single “Throw Away This” hasn’t been celebrated by the blogosphere with tribal parties and re-tweets all over the place. It might be not as elusive and dark as their previous material, but you can’t discard it at all: producer Lewis Pesacov (Fool’s Gold’s guitarist) exalts Livaudais and Gangnes’ pop side with excellent results. That little shout at the start has me going crazy. “Throw Away This”? No way.
"Throw Away This"
Love at first hearing
So far, Chad Valley (real name Hugo Manuel) was like an extra on the chill-wave set, but that has changed, at least as far as I’m concerned, with something like the single “Now That I’m Real (How Does It Feel?)”, which shows he’s got the same clarity of ideas as the latest Toro Y Moi output and the melodic emotionality of Lonely Dear, who the Oxford musician looks a bit like, by the way. It’s a heavenly union of samplers, synths, metallic drums and, of course, fantastic voices: that goes for Valley’s and also for Rose Dagul’s of Rhosyn’s voice, as second vocals that take the track to the border of early Stars, which is like the best Prefab Sprout (big words, I know). The advance track of the mini album “Equatorial Ultravox” (an ugly title for beautiful music) features a marvellous video directed by photographer Lucy Bridger. Love at first hearing. And sight.
There are many ways to pass the time on the Internet, but few are as exciting as www.jesus-is-savior.com and, above all, Noisey.com, a website designed to uncover bands from all over the world through concert footage and filmed interviews. The project by Vice, Dell and Intel is a goldmine and it’s well worth your time, as the team travel from dot to dot on their musical world map. Lovers of Spanish indie can get to know Mujeres (whose show was recently recommended by The Guardian), Caballo Tripode and Der Ventilator, but, as said, you can find bands from all over the world, playing in their home country and abroad. Chad Valley in Oxford, Toro Y Moi in Atlanta, Austra in Toronto, Braids in Vancouver, Bot’ox in París or, one of my favourites, No Joy, in Montreal. A pleasure, really and absolutely.
My doubts about Cults
On that same website, you can see Cults playing in San Francisco. Some will wonder how I could omit that, seeing as they are (judging from the rave reviews) one of the bands of the hour. Well, I’m not so sure about that. Or maybe I don’t know what all the fuss is about. There’s nothing offensive about their sound (like coming from the room next to this one, sixties pop and primitive rock & roll come indie), but the twosome simply don’t have enough good songs to fill a whole album. I like “Go Outside”, “Oh My God” and “Bad Things”. The other tracks, well, I have doubts, doubts and more doubts. I liked them better when they were unknown, more twee, less rock. Less Kills, more Spector. I also doubt if “You Know What I Mean” is a tribute to or a shameless copy of “Where Did Our Love Go” by The Supremes; and I don’t think it’s the same thing as Coldplay and their “I Go To Rio”, because I don’t see Holland-Dozier-Holland credited anywhere in the case of the Cults track.
Cults - You Know What I Mean
Black is the night
One of the best films you’ll see this year hasn’t been premiered yet, at least, as far as I know, in any cinema. It’s called “L.A. Noire” and it’s a giant step ahead in the concept of the video game as interactive cinema. It’s the 2011 version of “Heavy Rain”, but even more complex. An absolutely enjoyable exercise in noir, with a plot that is easier to understand than that of “The Maltese Falcon”, a cast featuring several actors from “Mad Men” (the main star is Aaron Staton, alias Ken Cosgrove) and a game system in which facial expressions and emotions play a big part. The most electrifying aspect of the game isn’t the action, of which there’s heaps, but the interrogations during which you have to become like Dr. Lightman from “Lie To Me”. And, as it comes from the people of “GTA”, you can interact more freely with objects and scenes than in “Heavy Rain”. To sit in front of the screen means completely forgetting about reality, and all the ugliness. Really, Roger Ebert: “video games aren’t art”?
The history of beef
After dedicating reputed volumes to Sonic Youth (“Goodbye 20th Century”) and Jeff and Tim Buckley (“Dream Brother”), journalist and musical biographer David Browne has been looking at the favourite music of his childhood for a new great book, “Fire and Rain. The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970” (Da Capo Press). It’s a book for beef lovers. The stories of victories and turbulence of four names who recorded four key albums in 1970 – Simon & Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”), The Beatles (“Let It Be”), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (“Déjà Vu”) and James Taylor (“Sweet Baby James”), a year less commented on than 1968 and 1969, but equally fascinating. Browne says: “I couldn’t resist revisiting a moment when sweetly sung music and ugly times coexisted, even fed off each other, in a world gone off course.”
A serious and pleasant read... And if you want something hilarious and pleasant, few options are better than “2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America”, the novel by Albert Brooks (the charismatic actor and filmmaker) about a future with more old people than young. There’s a cure for cancer and people live to be indecently old, exhausting the United States’ resources. And then the country suffers a gigantic earthquake, much to the frustration of the administration of the first ever Jewish president. The book is a marvel and you come out of it with new hope.
Lady Gaga and the beginning of the end
If you think the sleeve of the new Lady Gaga is ugly, you haven’t heard the album. The ugliness of “Americano”, “Government Hooker” and “Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)” (or: Journey meets “Legend”) is simple unsurpassable – it’s excess taken to its worst consequences. That’s what happens when Gaga discovers Justice, digests them badly and thinks she’s the hippest (and maybe most ironic) of the hood. There are times when even irony can’t save the day, and Gaga’s album is one of them. Everything, or almost everything, that is bad about the pop culture of our times is summarised in those eternal minutes. On the other hand, if I were her, I’d be worried: She’s on the radio all the time, but mainly with the tracks of her previous album. There’s not a trace of “Government Hooker”.
Jon Benjamin has a van
If you’re a regular reader of this column, you’ll know I have a soft spot for “Bob’s Burgers”, one of the best comedies of the past five years. Somewhere between “Dr. Katz” (the maker of “Bob’s”, Loren Bouchard, was a script writer for that series) and “King Of The Hill”, the story of the high-end chef come hamburger cook is a source of five forks slacker jokes. Fans of the series are in luck, for H. Jon Benjamin, who provided the voice for Dr. Katz’s son and now for Bob, has just started a show on Comedy Central: “Jon Benjamin Has A Van” is a comic experiment that isn’t always successful, but very valuable none the less, halfway between a satiric news show and street gags. Here’s a sample.
Thurston Moore/Demolished Thoughts: Beck produces a beautiful and tense record, with gems like the folk-jazz, and very Van Morrisonesque “Benediction”.
Robert Pollard/Lord of the Birdcage: Don’t believe some of the reviews. This is Pollard’s return to his best form. If you don’t believe me, check out “In A Circle”.
Fucked Up/David Comes to Life: Fucked Up celebrate their tenth anniversary with a punk opera about a doomed romance. Tremendous.
13 & God/Own Your Ghost: Maybe indie rap and glitch-rock aren’t fashionable, but you do have to listen to this with the volume on 11. Oomph.
Battles/Gloss Drop: How to survive Tyondai Braxton leaving: with colours, ice cream, sun and heat. Math-pop for the beach.
Next: Dan Humphrey becomes Jeff Buckley, Clams Casino (another ugly name for beautiful music), Radiohead’s “Staircase”, Drake, the return of CSS, the romance between Courtney and Jack, some beef, some series and various flashes from the panorama of today’s pop, so vast, so complex.
You want to know Juan Manuel Freire’s cultural diet? Here’s a summary: the new series of the moment, Bon Iver, hyperreal video games, sophisticated electronic pop, beautiful songs and zero tolerance for lipids: Lady Gaga? No, thank you. Reed and consume.