the spacious herbacious

a boundless space for growth to take shape

An Apology of Irony

I feel the need to defend irony, for perhaps the first time in its existence – I’m sure – since the beginning of human communication, from the resoundingly popular recent NY Times article, ‘How to Live Without Irony’, by Christy Wampole [Please do read it before continuing, in both fairness to the author and because my critique is largely spurred directly from her claims…it’ll be simpler to follow the arguments]. Normally, I would not bother writing (essentially to myself) about an article I disagree with – the merciless mixture of pointlessness and tedium would occur too frequently to bear. However, this article is different: for whatever reason (most likely people growing tired of hipsters overrunning their space) this one is ringing true with plenty of people I generally look to for interesting, insightful reads, and also, I have recently had conversations on the subject of irony – ironically with myself – though my conclusions have been practically the opposite of Ms. Wampole’s. I cannot let this pass for timely brilliance when it so clearly is not.

Many people are tweeting aphoristic quotes from Wampole’s article like, “To live ironically is to hide in public.” My response would be, to live ironically is to hide from the portion of the public who does not understand you. It’s akin to ‘choosing your audience’. You wouldn’t use the idiom, “Put your jeans on one leg at a time,” to someone in a culture where pants don’t exist. Pretty bad example but I hope you get the point. In this sense, referential irony is crucial today where the internet makes your audience the entire developed world. You must limit that bewilderingly sized audience to make any sort of nuanced statement.  Being ironic is not hiding.

The author’s view on the subject is regressive rather than progressive, much like the nature of trends and fads themselves. Of course there are negative aspects to “hipsterism,” but there are intellectually positive implications to be had as well; we can take those and build upon them so they live on when the fad inevitably dies.

Wampole claims, “This kind of defensive living…takes the form of reaction rather than action.” I disagree wholeheartedly that this is “defensive living,” but even if it were, her logic is flawed…defense is a form of action. Defense is an active response to an overbearing attack. Often, it is only used to bide time before committing effort to an offensive of its own, in which case, time will tell how this defensive sentimentality evolves. But I digress, because there is a multitude of ways for defense to be used actively. Just keep in mind that there is a progression here, historically, when you consider the context of culture in this discussion about irony.

I can agree with Wampole that irony in its current hipster form is a nearly strictly upper-middle class phenomenon. That may be where the agreements end, and even that is probably fairly easy to dispute. Anyway, with that remark in mind, irony is a signifier of powerlessness in motion; whether we have power or not, people and ideas are always in motion. What I mean by powerlessness in this instance is this: upper-middle class people are bombarded with issues, some big, millions small. That saturation of possible actions to take, and the resulting decision (or indecision) to act on one thing over another is a form of failure to act on the other. This creates an overwhelming stress, a numbing paralysis that takes the guise of indifference. That feeling of the inability to act is powerlessness, and the only thing to be done at that point is laugh. Laughing at anything or everything, oftentimes the process of doing so makes irony a necessity.

Beyond this, irony in itself is an action, an expression of opinion. You cannot be ironic without a viewpoint, otherwise you have just said something so dull and plain that you’d easily be mistaken for a fool. To reiterate, being ironic is not hiding.

Wampole also states, “It stems…from the belief that this generation has little to offer in terms of culture.” Again, whether you choose to acknowledge current sentiments as culture does not determine if others feel a part of this period’s culture. There are endless cultural merits to come out of this generation just as there always have been in any generation. Perhaps, now, there are so many that one cannot easily recognize them, their origins are too complex to be self-evident, and they are referenced by culturally aware hipsters the world over being misunderstood as “kitschy” – a word as cliché as a hipster with a mustache. This yet another example of the author’s negative, regressive framework of an ultimately progressive notion (i.e. generational culture).

She does make a good point about Instagram: “We cannot accelerate meaningful remembrance.” What a brilliant little aphorism. But on second thought, aren’t we forced to do so in this age where globalization and the internet among other factors are making things progress at an unprecedented exponential rate? Everything around us is accelerating. Are we meant to just stop and be overwhelmed by progress, or adapt and accelerate along with it?

And in response to her finale of preposterous questions:

All communication is done through references, ask Bertrand Russell about it. Just because the references are niche or complex or subtle does not mean they go without meaning. If anything there is that much more meaning packed into each turn of irony’s plot. And as aforementioned, you dictate your audience with your choices of communicative reference.

All clothing style is “derivative.” Also, “derivative” is a terrible pejorative epithet, as there should be nothing wrong with derivation. We, and every thing and idea humankind has created, are ALL derivative.

Finally, some people (and I would propose a growing population) ARE “nerdy, awkward, or ugly,” only at this point in time it isn’t something to be ashamed of; we can openly embrace ourselves more than ever before with respect or even adulation rather than threat as a response.

And it is wonderfully ironic how Wampole’s bastions of ‘Sincerity’ (David Foster Wallace, Wes Anderson, and Cat Power) are all hipster gods! Their sincerity – like everything else – can be read (as I’m sure many have) ironically.

Her entire stance becomes clear when she confesses narrowly missing the generational window of which she speaks. The bitter, nostalgic cry of a conservative-in-the-making. It – just like progress – is bound to happen to us all. I do not mean to criticize her age, only to point out that every generation is seemingly at war with, and eventually overtaken, by the next. My own soon will be too (perhaps sooner than ever), when the culture DERIVATIVE of ours turns our ideals on their head. Then, I’ll be the one writing, in a nostalgic haze no less, ‘I remember the days when a man could be ironic in peace.’

WU LYF Doesn’t Live Forever, Dies Today

Friday, November Twenty-Three, WU LYF breaks up publicly via Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IYP28s_-1VA) via Twitter (@FUCKWU). A simple link to a static clip of unreleased track ‘TRIUMPH’ punctuated by an ‘x’ is all the tweet read. Jump to song, scan to description, read parting note in general, then parting note to bandmates from lead man Ellery James Roberts. Written in grandiose metaphors as he was apt to do, Roberts lays it all out on the table and I can’t help but feel him. At his age, at my age, it’s the time to question, ‘what greatness is meant for me to stake a claim? Is this it? Let me find out.’

Roberts says, “By the time I wrote this I was all ready gone.” Whether he was referring to the song or the note is lost on me, but he might as well have written it back before April Twenty-Three of this year when I saw WU LYF play the Rock ‘n Roll Hotel in DC. Here are the thoughts I scribbled that evening about the show:

I came into the venue with the expectation that these guys would come out like some Mancunian militia with the way they present themselves cryptically through their revolution recruitment-style sites. Then they come out on stage…just four skinny white dudes. Perhaps their eyes are wider than their stomachs. [This may prove telling for Ellery James Roberts, at least].

Bright, crisp guitar chords chime in beautiful contrast to the pounding drums, rasping vocals, and knelling organ. The guitarist and bassist kept it simple and relaxed – lazy upon first glance – but its shimmering innocence truly does provide the perfect, necessary foil for the otherwise dark, funereal aura. The drumming and crooning would ultimately hit visceral emotional highs in a crowd-embracing frenzy.

Beyond the material of their brilliantly themed and named debut album, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, the band didn’t have much material to fill stage time. A nifty cover of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Games’ added a bit, but when pleaded from the crowd to play some new material guitarist, Evans Kat, replied, “We’ll play new stuff when we write new stuff,” with a wry grin on his face. That struck me as odd seeming as how they released their album in June of the previous year. I gave them the benefit of the doubt though…some groups are constantly writing while others need to step back and conceptualize. Since Go Tell Fire was stuffed with recurring motifs both lyrically and musically, I would have imagined that the next album would be entirely fresh.

I would later find out (just today, 11/23/2012), that Roberts had claimed an end to the project as early as March of last year, prior to the show I had attended. No wonder they were havin’ a laugh about ‘new material’. There would be none to speak of…for now. Roberts says “forever,” but, “the door will always be open.” Perhaps he’ll find the only way to save the world is through WU LYF. We shall see; until then, we love you forever.

Father John Misty, live in DC show review

Judging by the crowd full of swooning young females at the Rock n Roll Hotel on H Street in DC, you might assume that this act of handsome misfits was built for a feminine following. You’d be half right, but the content of the artist’s lyrics and style is much closer to Vonnegut and Bukowski than Adam Levine and Bieber. While the band’s looks and charms have the girls weak at the knees, Joshua Tillman, you had me at ’21st Century Schizoid Man,’ the song roaring from the speakers as they made their way to the stage.

That entrance did a great deal of work to assuage the expectations of journeying tales sung with angelic harmonics that you would certainly find at a Fleet Foxes show. You won’t find those here; Tillman left that band for a reason. Forgive him for saying ‘fuck it’ to the beautiful, mass-appealing songstry of the Fleet Foxes, instead opting for the sarcastic wit of Jeff Winger on a psychedelic binge down the coast. Unless your disc jockey bleeds the same acerbic blues as Bukowski, you won’t hear many radio singles here.

Sure, no molds are being smashed as far as song composition goes – “This is Sally Hatchet” and “Writing a Novel” sound aged and dated – but you can bet his hammered musings are as vital as you will find in the world of Hollywood that he’s simultaneously transplanting himself to and excommunicating himself from. Tillman’s brand of sarcasm is full as much with lethargic apathy as it is with innuendo; sardonic sex appeal certainly isn’t for everyone.

If you don’t quite get his humor which frankly raises the album from mundane to integral, I highly suggest Father John Misty’s live performance. Not only is it filled with brilliantly bonus lyrical asides, but Tillman is a talker and he keeps the audience laughing by poking fun at himself, bringing his new persona back to earth. Throughout the set, he fills the gaps between croons of  heart and soul with deadpan, monotone asides, playing both cynical poetic genius and cynical peanut gallery.

Even if you do already enjoy his sarcasm and ironic writing, hearing him spout it out in his clear, natural oak of a voice, you’ll pick up on any clever lines you may have missed the first listen through. That’s a tribute to the dynamic of the music. The classic southern (and at times, hickabilly) rock appropriately takes a back seat when this man takes the mic. In the dispensing of a single trailing phrase, Tillman turns a flailing death wish into a relevatory affirmation: “I’m gonna take my life. I’m gonna take my life…back one day.” Ironically, even in his rebirth he is listlessly languid, supine, effete –  unable to be fully positive.

So, do yourself a favor and let Father John Misty take you on a journey through his mid-life crisis of sorts. It doesn’t disappoint.

album review: The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet

 

The Mars Volta are back having released their new album Noctourniquet – a study of “how to stop the night from bleeding,” according to singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala – back on March 27th. ‘Back to what?’, you wonder? That’s what’s stumping me, too. I can’t put my finger on it. So let’s dive right in and get back to that later.

Upon a first listen through, it’s pretty noticeable that Bixler-Zavala’s vocals own these tracks. He’s forceful and aggressive when it calls for it, and understated and soft-spoken when he needs to be. Sure, we all know that Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is the dictatorial mastermind composing the album from start to finish, but for the first time (as Thomas Pridgen, drummer up until this album, will tell you), Cedric is the most important man in the room. A track like ‘Zed and Two Naughts’ would fall flat were it not for his outbursts of, “Saint Christopher/don’t go-o-o-o-o wan-der-ing,” that break up the machinelike pumping of the drum and bass. His penetrating repetition of “do you think I’ll fold?” from the song ‘Noctourniquet’ will stick in your mind far after the swagger of the bass line and layers of guitar and synth have dissipated. He’s reigned in his vocal range so when he soars you well and truly feel it, and his lyrics are kept concise compared to his prior oeuvre, holding minimalism to a higher esteem than ever before. Whether it’s his timing, melody, or lyrics, Cedric is essential to every track on the album.

The primary theme of those lyrics is the relationship between parent and child, and more specifically, the will of the parents being forced onto that of the innocent youth as suggested in the opening track’s title, ‘The Whip Hand’. Often he sings from the perspective of the young boy, like in the first single off the album, ‘The Malkin Jewel’, telling stories of his mother, the town harlot and the song’s namesake. Unfortunately, his vitriolic croon in the chorus resembles that of bygone Marilyn Manson, but it works well with the subject matter and the captivating, offbeat jangle of the rhythm section. Alternatively narrated, ‘Lapochka’ – according to Cedric himself in an interview – is about a mother and her incessantly pestering child whom she in turn calls lapochka, a russian term of endearment for a young girl.

Also at play through the record are the relationships between language, memory and death, as heard in the lyrically magnificent ‘Aegis’, as well as the dualities of good and evil, decimation, and rebirth. Maybe my favorite song so far, ‘In Absentia’, is the longest – and most rewarding – track on the album. It benefits from building up to a resounding finale pleading, “Da-a-sehra-a-a-a-a-a-a,” a cry that was initially intended to be the chorus, but – I think successfully – was converted to the ending. Dasehra is the Sanskrit goddess that takes away sin, or, similarly, a Hindu celebration of good over evil. In the context of the narrative Cedric is weaving, we can read into this more as a question: “when, if ever, does the reign of one’s parents come to an end?” As you probably already know, we could spend days deciphering Cedric’s reference-laden puzzles like T.S. Eliot’s poetry, so I’ll leave the rest to you. Back to the success of the album as a whole, something that rides on more than just lyrics.

The gravity of brevity is possibly the greatest alteration to the TMV formula, and it’s one enforced by Omar to compliment the shortened song structures that he has pinpointed as integral to progressing the band’s sound. For the first time since At the Drive-In, less is more. No more breakdowns filled with relentless shredded solos, drum fills, and bass jams – unless it’s a well-rounded act of cohesion, all of that jammy goodness is left presumably for the live show. On the album, they’re strictly business. Another addition is new drummer, Deantoni Parks. I know, I know, what more could you ask from a drummer that the awe-inspiring whirlwind that is Thomas Pridgen couldn’t answer? If the drum work on Octahedron is any indication, I’d say…restraint. If you want a flying fury of drums, go listen to Bedlam in Goliath, ’cause it seems by Omar’s schemes, that precision and control are what the mad scientist has ordered. Not that Pridgen has no control, but his talents are too outspoken. He’s like the frickin’ Incredible Hulk, his presence can’t be caged as I’m convinced Omar attempted on Octahedron. This experiment requires something more like a drum machine with a heart, and the closest you’ll come to that is mister Parks. Just focus intently on the drumming throughout the album and you’ll see how it is brilliantly precise and uniquely timed, yet it never overshadows the rest of the band. Not only that, it compliments the increasingly electronic sounds of the album and the generation quite well.

So to sum up, I thought this album was back to former ass kickin’ ways – the album that should have followed up Bedlam, leaving the soft Octahedron to rest, as if it never happened. But then I listened to Octahedron again to refresh my cringeful memories of it, and – surprisingly – I didn’t hate it. The differences from one album to the next aren’t too sonically drastic. Octahedron has its hauntingly dark moments a la Bedlam as well as ravenous thrashing. The main problem was that it wasn’t able to flow because it was chopped up with long stretches of near-silence and the occasionally too harmonious interplay between Cedric’s vocals and Omar’s string-pulling that ended up turning the stomachs of most TMV fans. Oddly, some of those poppy moments still appear on Noctourniquet, but now, they are quickly forgotten because you don’t have time to dwell on them, the next song has smacked you in the face already. And there’s the beauty. In the past, a song that you didn’t like could ruin the entire album; after all, it was most likely ten or thirteen minutes long and a sixth of the whole thing. This time around, there are thirteen tracks – full, substantial songs, not spacey interludes. Although a couple reach the seven- and eight-minute mark, the majority are about five minutes long, and they come and go hard and fast making those longer takes a refreshing change of pace with meaningful growth.

So, perhaps Noctourniquet is the album we all wanted after Bedlam, but that’s not how it works. TMV needed to (painfully) grow through Octahedron to reach this point which could be the band’s crowning achievement considering it seemed like they were on the tailend of their career. The future is once again bright for this powerhouse duo (and friends).

Radiohead Live at Coachella 2012! (via youtube, unfortunately)

Radiohead remind the world why they’re the greatest. Fans scream, “Play every song!” every last one, as it seemed the night might just go that way. The group was keeping the audience guessing with, not necessarily obscure songs – a band this famous, none of their songs are obscure to many – but songs you wouldn’t quite expect to hear.

They began the set with a slightly reworked rendering of ‘Bloom’ with a tempo that waded through a viscous pond. Jonny Greenwood pounded on a couple of drums in minimalistic fashion to provide a primal tertiary level of percussion. Meanwhile, the entire set was accompanied by the auxiliary drumming of touring member, Clive Deamer of Portishead. Seeing ‘Bloom’ performed live really gives you a feel for how the ultimately complex mass of songs that are prevalent on King of Limbs are actually comprised of minimalistic pieces, and that’s where their beauty lies.

Next, a couple In Rainbows tunes warmed the crowd up a bit before they performed another slightly reworked track from King of Limbs, ‘Magpie’. This version was like the original on steroids and a bout of ADHD – more upbeat so as to keep Coachella moving. When ‘The Gloaming’ made its presence known, it came off just as contemporary as their newest material with sweet layers of loops, oh my! Breaths of “funny, ha ha” echoed maniacally like a clown in the shadows. Avid fans would notice the subtle tweaks in the looped vocals of this track, Radiohead refusing to become stale. They know that their fans put their albums on repeat, so they’re gonna notice those little quirks.

Jonny showed his unrivaled versatility by opening ‘Pyramid Song’ by playing his guitar with a bow like a cello to create that eerily digital, billowing pierce. At the start of ‘Daily Mail’, Thom Yorke gives us insight on the set’s obscurity and revamps: “we’re playing relatively new songs to make sure we are still alive…I think we are.” The song built up to a dark and edgy sound reminiscent of Hail to the Thief – a bit of a foreshadowing segue for the subsequent Hail to the Thief-heavy song choices. I’m not complaining though, that happens to be my personal favorite album of the band, if only by an inch. Extra distortion pedals kept the crowd  warm and fuzzy during Myxomatosis…shit I wish I was there to jerkily hop around like a skinny Brit!

Speaking of skinny Brits, Thom prefaced the crowd fave, ‘Karma Police’, by claiming this song was, “for users that work you over…you need a cold shower afterwards, you know what I’m talkin’ about.” Alternating the old with the new, that hit was followed by ‘Identikit’, an unreleased track that begins with a hip-hop beat and dueling repeating vocal mantras, unfolds into a warm, beachy groove, then breaks into a shower of chillwavy synths. I’m looking forward to listening to this genre-bender more often.

For ‘There There,’ Jonny hops on the percussive bandwagon along with the mallot-clutching Ed O’Neil, this time wielding four drumsticks because, you know, two just don’t cut it. Somehow, Thom’s voice just gets better and better, not just in this performance, but down the years. Not once does he fail to reach the heights that he sets himself on the studio albums, but often he reaches beyond them. I’m baffled by it.

Moving on, harmonizing backing vocals and a revamped electro-dance break transmute ‘Idioteque’ for their first finale. I say first finale because there’s no way they’re leaving Coachella without an encore. They return to the stage to perform my favorite OK Computer track, ‘Lucky’…I’ve just got a gooey soft-spot for the center of this molten lava cake of a slow-roller. Then, to keep with their theme of danceability, they hit us with ‘Reckoner’, with its reappropriation of Sebastien Tellier’s sensual groove. The sparse piano and vocals of ‘After the Gold Rush’ introduce ‘Everything in its Right Place’. What other way to end a night at Coachella than with everything in its right place?

Apparently, a second encore of ‘Give Up the Ghost’ and the end-all be-all of hits, ‘Paranoid Android’, of course. The former is gentle, Thom’s ghosting looped voice, fingers thumping the beat on his acoustic guitar, and Jonny plucking electrified strings – a fitting preface for the latter’s crunching, slashing frenzy. And there you have it. Top that Black Keys. And be sure to check out tonight’s performances streaming live on youtube. If you missed it, you can watch Radiohead’s epic performance here at the huffpost: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/15/radiohead-coachella-thom-yorke_n_1426714.html.

Setlist:

1. Bloom
2. 15 Steps
3. Weird Fishes
4. Magpie
5. Staircase
6. The Gloaming
7. Pyramid Song
8. Daily Mail
9. Myxomatosis
10. Karma Police
11. Identikit
12. Lotus Flower
13. There There
14. Bodysnatchers
15. Idioteque
Encore:
16. Lucky
17. Reckoner
18. After the Gold Rush intro/Everything In Its Right Place
2nd Encore:
19. Give Up the Ghost
20. Paranoid Android

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