Phil Elverum and his wife’s passing

An elegant, desperately sad piece by Jayson Greene in Pitchfork about Phil Elverum (The Microphones, Mt. Eerie) and his wife Geneviève’s death from cancer last year.

On the effect of the disease on their mutual creative outlook:

The sickness cast a similar pall on Geneviève’s creative urges. “When she lived, our house was very much taken over by both of our projects all the time,” Elverum says. “Neither of us had real jobs, so we just stayed up late and spread our crazy art things all over the place. But when she got sick, it all seemed so shallow all of a sudden. She didn’t care so much about her previously sacred practice of drawing all those hours. Music and art was very far from our minds for the past couple years. It still is. This new album is barely music. It’s just me speaking her name out loud, her memory.”

Elverum began writing and recording only two months after she passed away in their house. His work is traditionally hushed and introspective—albeit often punctuated with extreme noise—and his new work, unsurprisingly, continues in this vein:

The resulting album, A Crow Looked at Me, sounds like an Elverum work. The music is low and murmuring. His voice is hushed and conversational. The theme of impermanence can still be felt. But the difference between this album and everything else he’s done is the difference between charting a voyage around the earth and undertaking it. It is a profoundly detailed dispatch from grief’s rawest place—the moments still inside the blast radius, when your ears are ringing and you feel the shock of mortification slowly spreading to new corners of your existence every day.

Unlike many works about grief, though, there is no glance towards redemptive larger meaning, which makes it all the more bracing. “Your absence is a scream saying nothing,” Elverum sings on a song called “Emptiness Pt. 2,” drawing the word “scream” out until it is a more like an ambient hum, the buzz of a newly barren existence. Listening to it is like pressing your hand against ice and leaving it there.

On Elverum’s new life with his two-year-old daughter:

“My default mode right now is to throw open the doors and windows. I don’t know where to draw the line. Even just having you here, upstairs, showing you Geneviève’s journals: Is that over a line? But that’s how the songs are written, too: ‘Here’s everything. Look in here. Look at me. Death is real.’”

“My daughter is like a tether back to the functional world, and I’m aware of how helpful that is,” he says. “I have to cut up the broccoli; I can’t be weeping. And yet, sometimes I am weeping, and she’ll come up to me and say, ‘Papa crying!’ And I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I’m crying right now, I’m sad. It’s fine.’ And she laughs and goes back to her Legos.” With that, he heads upstairs and goes to sleep. He needs a full night’s rest, because tomorrow is another full day.

I’m yet to listen to the new album (if this were a Kottke post, it’d be tagged with ‘crying at work‘). Some of Elverum’s earlier work had a pronounced emotional effect on the younger me, particularly the album The Glow, Pt. 2:

Grief and trauma have always been themes in Elverum’s work. The lyrics of the song above stand out to me, some 10 years after first hearing them:

I could not get through September without a battle
I faced death
I went in with my arms swinging
But I heard my own breath
And I had to face that I’m still living
I’m still flesh
I hold on to awful feelings

My friend Kevin has the right idea:

20 years of Either/Or

It’s 20 years since Elliott Smith released Either/Or and, like any good Smith anniversary, there are a few things to catch up with.

Firstly, the expanded edition was given a 10/10 rating by Pitchfork and declared ‘best new reissue’:

By the time Either/Or was released in 1997, Smith was no stranger to the cynical machinations of the post-grunge major label gold rush. A year prior, his former band Heatmiser had been put through that very ringer, an experience captured in Either/Or standouts “Pictures of Me” and “Angeles.” Either/Or sounds like the work of somebody who has zero interest in either conforming to or directly transgressing the “commercial” sounds of the day. It’s too ambitious to read as “lo-fi” and too gritty to read as straightforward pop classicism. Thankfully, this 20th anniversary remaster doesn’t smooth out too many of those rough edges—if anything, it brings the unique sound of the record into even clearer focus.

Jeff Weiss writes on why Either/Or is his ‘break glass in case of existential crisis’ album:

Some people need happy music to buoy their serotonin. Not me. I want dirges so emotionally raw that they’re too severe for normal occasions. I need a “break glass in case of existential crisis” album. Elliott Smith never fails to feel your pain yet avoids melodramatic whining and gothic cliché. He discovered a way to make the softest music sound hard.

There is no “best” Elliott Smith record. Chances are your favorite is the first one you heard. For most of us, that’s Either/Or, the album released 20 years ago last month, the one that Gus Van Sant fell in love with and used to soundtrack Good Will Hunting. It’s what led to Smith’s surreal performance at the Academy Awards and set him on a path to cult stardom. It’s what led to his move to L.A., the major-label deal with DreamWorks, the story that ends with him fatally stabbing himself in his Echo Park apartment with an 8-inch kitchen knife.

I think I bought the record a year after its release in 1998 and was immediately floored by the guitar and vocal arrangements. John EE Allen of Happiness notes the drums on the record, something that often goes unmentioned or even unnoticed:

I’ve always particularly loved the drums on Either/Or—they sound so unhinged, whether they’re doing the muggy simmering thing or distorting like crazy and being played half to death, or that honky snare note in “Alameda,” or the songs (there are a couple) where they crash in just inordinately late. There’s something so heartfelt about the way they’re played. And how, despite them, it’s still at its crux a “guy with an acoustic guitar” record. And it closes with a song as beautiful and hopeful and unaffected as “Say Yes.”

While Jeff Terich calls Either/Or ‘a statement of artistic freedom and cautious optimism‘:

Perhaps more than any of Smith’s other records, either/or is the album in which the Portland singer/songwriter becomes a Rorschach test unto its listeners. You might hear an artist working through his doubts and pain. You might hear a statement of independence. You might even hear something that sounds like Paul Simon. I hear an someone overwhelmed by possibility, celebrating the freedom of being his own artist with some of the most creative and beautifully written music of his career. I hear something honest and genuine, with more than a glimmer of hope.

Fans of Elliott Smith will enjoy Say Yes, a podcast from Louisville Public Media. Guests have so far included Gus Van Sant, Jack Black, Mary Lou Lord and Ben Gibbard. It’s interesting whether you’re a newcomer to Smith’s work or a super-fan; interest is assumed, but not detailed prior knowledge of his work, and even those like me who’ve seen the film, read multiple books, countless articles and oral histories about Smith will be entertained and informed by the guests’ anecdotes.

The podcast features some delightful piano arrangements of Smith’s songs by Joshua Piper, a.k.a. heavypiano:

As a side note, over the past few years I’ve been increasingly enamoured of Alex G, a Philly-based wunderkind who’s about to release his 8th album in what seems like about 6 weeks. I hear a lot of Smith in him. Here’s where to start with Alex G, courtesy of Pitchfork.

Music and the creative process

Cabel Sasser (co-founder of software house Panic) also makes music. In Stagehand: The Music, he discusses the process of writing the main theme for Stagehand, a game produced by Panic colleague Neven Mrgan and friend Matt Comi.

I only know two ways to write songs: sit at a piano and see what comes out, or install a songwriting background task in my brain and see what comes out. The second one means I make sure that as I’m walking around or doing whatever, I’ll just be noodling around ideas in my head.

Sasser’s piece shows it goes from humming/scatting a few seconds’ worth of a tune into Apple’s Music Memos app:

Through the arrangement and recording:

To the final piece, which you can buy.

It’s a fascinating story of how to nurture a germ of an idea all the way to completion, not least because of Sasser’s acknowledged inability to do it all himself:

There was no way I was gonna be able to put a “live” version of the song together by myself. I’m basically musically illiterate, don’t know instrument ranges, can’t write music, don’t know any players, have no studio experience, etc.

I was also fascinated by the methodology (there’s no other word to use) used by Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo to build songs. It involves semi-plagiarism of chord progressions, anagrams, morning pages, syllable counts, databases and democratic band arrangements.

Not necessarily what I would have expected from the writer of Pinkerton, an album that soundtracked my late teenage years, which I rather hoped had arrived fully-formed in his head. Perhaps it did and his process has changed since then. Or perhaps that’s overly romanticising the idea of creativity.

In any case, Cuomo’s approach is an interesting example of using a process and a structure to foster the creative process, and there’s something to learn from it. (I’m somewhat reminded of Frank Chimero’s How to have an idea, which he seems to have removed from his site, so here’s a copy.)

Lastly, an anecdote about where the “where do we go?” breakdown in Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child o’ Mine came from:

In his autobiography, Slash tells us the true history of the “where do we go” breakdown — credit goes to Spencer Proffer, a music producer that the band was considering for their album. Proffer was the one who thought that the song needed a breakdown after that guitar solo — the only question was what it would sound like. And then, Axl started thinking out loud, as recounted by Slash:

[Proffer] was right . . .  but we had no idea what we wanted to do there. All of us sat around the control room, listening to it over and over, devoid of a clue.

“Where do we go” Axl said, more to himself than the rest of us. “Where do we go now? . . . Where do we go?”

“Hey,” Spencer said, turning the music down. “Why don’t you just try singing that?”

And so became that dramatic breakdown.

My musical activities these days mostly consist of trying to find 10 minutes in the day to spend with a guitar: half-remembering songs I’ve learned before and playing around with whatever else pops into my head. It’s disjointed, unproductive and ultimately unsatisfying. An approach like Sasser’s or Cuomo’s might yield more interesting and enjoyable results.

3 Alveston Place: The epicentre of British music

David Beer on the inauspicious Midlands address that’s likely to evoke nostalgic memories to anyone who bought music in the ’90s (and probably earlier):

3 Alveston Place, Leamington Spa is an address that is likely to ring a familiar tone. Anybody who bought their music on vinyl, CD or tape is almost certain have come across this address. These formats usually carried a second-class free-post card that was almost always made out to the same address — with the band or singer’s name added at the top. The card invited you to write your details on the reverse before posting. Returning the card registered you for postal updates. The slow speed of this all seems quaint on reflection.

What is at this address now? If you’re around my age, and you sent away for information, you won’t want to know.

Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues”

Evan Puschak, who you may remember made ‘How Donald Trump answers a question‘, made this video about the complex and sublime Steely Dan song “Deacon Blues”. Interesting even if you don’t like Steely Dan or aren’t a musician.

Reminiscent of Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder. Here’s my favourite SE episode, deconstructing MGMT’s “Time To Pretend”. Having listened to the podcast, I can’t unhear the “Dancing Queen” references:

Mike Nesmith: the coolest Monkee

Sean Nelson (this Sean Nelson?) writes for Pitchfork about The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith:

In the same proportions that the Monkees are equivalent to a “real band,” Nesmith’s coyness is roughly similar to when Neil Young deigns to play a few gigs with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, or when Brian Wilson shows up for a Beach Boys tour. Nesmith is the lone figure in the group that even its detractors will admit is cool—the quality that has always eluded the Monkees, no matter how acceptable they have become among music snobs.

So what made Nesmith stand apart from his three fellow cast/bandmates? How did he manage not to allow the two years he spent on a low-rated kids TV show about a fake rock band define the 48 years that followed? How, in short, did Michael Nesmith become the one Monkee it was acceptable to dig?

A nice appraisal and it gives me an opportunity to embed a Nesmith-helmed Monkees song, which I will never turn down.

The title of Nelson’s piece—”Michael Nesmith: The Closest The Monkees Ever Got to Cool”—is a backhanded compliment and, I think, unwarranted. Just try not to pay too much attention to Dolenz goofing around in that video (particularly around 1m 20s).

See also: Nesmith discussing 15 Monkees songs with Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz.

The influence of Spotify’s curated playlists

Neil Cowley, writing in The Guardian about how his jazz tune became unexpectedly successful when a Spotify staff member added it to a curated playlist:

Some radio play and a few posts on social media meant that we got the track to 3,000-odd plays in the first couple of days. […] Enter stage left the “Spotify playlist”. Though I far from realised it at the time, this is the holy grail for independent artists such as myself. Overnight I was lifted out of the musty basement section where men with National Health spectacles hang out, and up on to the shiny new rack next to the checkout counter. All because I composed a solo piano piece that Spotify in deemed fit to feature on one of its more popular playlists. “Peaceful piano” with 1.9m subscribers put me in the company of Ludovico Einaudi, Nils Frahm and Max Richter and gifted me on average 25,000 plays a day.

The idea here is that people might not choose to listen to a broad playlist named ‘Jazz’, but they’d listen to the same songs if they appeared in the more specific ‘Peaceful piano’ playlist.

This feels like an ongoing shift in taxonomy that influences curation and UX copy. Presumably Spotify knows that users are less attracted to traditional genre labels, but prefer mood, activity or theme-based descriptions which might cut across multiple genres.

Setting aside user preferences for playlists over albums, it suggests that an artist like Cowley, despite enjoying more plays of this particular song, will see a much more modest increase in plays of the parent album which might well contain jazz music that isn’t ‘peaceful piano’.

Bad versions of good songs

Aimee Cliff for The Fader on bad cover versions of good songs:

Covers like this don’t seem to build on original ideas, but to reduce them. Perhaps it’s this sense of emotional simplification that makes me narrow my eyes at the Top 40; but I think it goes a little deeper, still. After all, it’s not so different to what my favorites were doing back in the ‘00s, when songs were being subsumed into a formulaic pop sound in the same way — but back then, it wasn’t acoustic indie pop or tropical house, it was bubblegum pop. The older generation might have hated Britney’s take on “I Love Rock N Roll” for polishing Joan Jett’s rebellious anthem into a pristine product — but, in a way, you could see that bubblegum-ifying process as a rebellion in itself. Feminized pop music was always an easy target to hate on, given its creators and defenders were mostly young girls. What makes the popular covers of 2016 a little more troubling is that they come from a totally different demographic: bros.

I have a friend who repeatedly sends me links to slow, acoustic covers of songs. They’re generally awful. Several of them are so reductive, removing so much much nuance and cultural context from the original, they are borderline offensive.

Take Jonas Blue. His adaptation of “Fast Car” is bound to be irritating to anyone who appreciates the subtleties of the original and dislikes the current tropical house trend. As Jonas said himself to Idolator, “I wanted to create a new version of it for the younger generation.” Does that mean it’s inherently bad? No. But what does give pause is the way in which the song — a woman of color’s dream about escaping a cycle of poverty — has had its edges softened. Chapman’s “Fast Car” has a heavy weight, as the protagonist’s fantasy of a better life is undermined by the grimly realist final verse: I’d always hoped for better/ Thought maybe together you and me would find it. In Jonas Blue’s version, the song instead ends on the hope that its hero will live in the suburbs, and the pop-friendly house beat suggests pure escapism. All this, in order to turn a tragic song into a commercial hit for a man who posts Instagrams of himself with the hashtag #fastcar.

A limit to human longevity

Brian Resnick reports for The Verge on how the average human lifespan is increasing, but the maximum remains constant:

The researchers analyzed the Human Mortality Database, which contains hundreds of years of population and mortality data for 38 countries.

They saw that while the percentage of people living to 70 has risen greatly since the 1900s (due to increased survival in childhood and better health care), the same cannot be said of people living past 100.

There are some gains in longevity after age 100, but they are much more modest. And the gains drop to near zero approaching 110.

By the time we reach later life our DNA has accumulated damage and our organs stop working. More of us are reaching later life, but there’s an apparent ceiling. The researchers estimate that a human living to age 125 is a once-in-a-10,000-year event. I can kiss goodbye to seeing the next century, then.

Behind the scenes of ‘Gosh’ by Jamie xx

Director Romain Gavras filmed in a fake version of Paris with 300 Chinese schoolchildren:

Here’s an interview with Gavras by Selim Bulut for Dazed:

Bulut: What’s the name of the actor who plays the main character?

Gavras: His name is Hassan Kone. We found him in Paris. He’s 17, still in high school. He was amazing because it was a first time thing, he was street-cast. At first – and this is what I was saying about the process – I didn’t want to cast him. I just went to my casting director and I was briefing him to find somebody interesting to be the main character, so there was, like, 20 guys to go by. I didn’t want just an interesting face, I wanted somebody that has an emotion that’s really strong. And there was that kid. He was the only albino (in the casting), and although I was not looking for that, I thought ‘Oh, he’s really interesting. He moves me, I don’t know why, but he moves me.’ So then when we were in China, we looked for Chinese albinos – which is not easy to find because they’re not accepted socially. We found them through Chinese Facebook links, and I ended up in a party of Chinese albinos. They hang out with each other, and some of them were great, and we cast them for the video.

As a reminder, here’s the finished video:


On Iggy and the Stooges

I didn’t know until reading Judy Berman’s article for Pitchfork that Jim Jarmusch has made a documentary about Iggy and the Stooges:

Berman describes the film:

If you came to this film looking for rollicking tales from a legendary wild man, then you might see Iggy’s calm, well-reasoned recollections of a time when he was often in some altered state as another flaw. His interviews may even make each stage of the Stooges’ emergence look more deliberate than it actually was.

I’m not sure if it is a US/UK thing, but the ‘intelligent’ Iggy has been in the ascendant here over the past few years. His 6 Music shows show him to be a laconic, intelligent, artistic and darkly funny man. I don’t think this detracts from his stage presence either now no 50 years ago.

Also of note: Jarmusch recruited James Kerr, the Scorpion Dagger guy, for some animation! I had no idea he was so widely known, but I’m glad he is.

Apple Music’s new personalised playlists

Reggie Ugwu’s Inside Apple Music’s Second Act for Buzzfeed:

The other big change is the addition of two new personalized playlists: My Favorites Mix and My New Music Mix. The playlists are generated by algorithms, a first for the service, which has largely relied on human curation for its playlists up to this point. Revealing how the mixes operate for the first time to BuzzFeed News, Apple claimed a potential advantage over similar algorithmically personalized playlists, including Spotify’s Discover Weekly and Pandora’s Thumbprint Radio: deep historical knowledge of individual users’ tastes and habits, based on years of data carried over from iTunes.

If you gave high ratings to a song or album in your old iTunes library, or just played it a lot more than others, you’ll find that behavior reflected in your My Favorites Mix. Meanwhile, the My New Music Mix algorithm serves recently released songs — as well as songs that Apple Music knows you haven’t played before — that the service’s music experts have flagged as similar to others in your taste profile. Apple Music executives suggested even more personalized playlists will follow in the series; but only after prototypes have been vetted, with all possible outcomes — intentional and otherwise — given careful consideration.

I’m still using Spotify’s Discover Weekly and Release Radar on a daily basis, but the two Apple Music playlists are a good start. Looking forward to seeing more.

Update: Spotify are rolling out Daily Mix, similar to Apple Music’s My Favourites Mix.

Pat “The Detective” Shannahan clears samples for musicians

Aaron Gonsher, for Red Bull Music Academy:

Aaron: You’re talking about explaining sampling as an art form. When you’re pursuing people and trying to clear rights, how do you contextualize what someone like the Avalanches are doing for, say, an older musician who has zero connection to their world or a tenuous grasp of sampling as a concept in general?

Pat: When I’m reaching out to someone, I first send a written request and I describe the project. It’s really a very limited request. But if I can get someone on the phone who I would be dealing with, I would basically explain who the artist is – “These are the Avalanches” – and try to make them understand what creative geniuses they are, and how creatively they use the sample, too. That it’s something to be really proud to be a part of, and see if I can get them to negotiate something that’s reasonable.

The Avalanches are special because what they do is so different from what so many artists do. Not to diminish what other artists do, but some out there take a piece of a work, or maybe even a few bars of another artist’s song and recording, and they loop it throughout their entire track and then just put a rap over it. What the Avalanches do is this amazing layering process, which is why it takes them so long to make a recording, because they’re perfectionists. They keep working at it and working at it until they have woven this music that is so phenomenal. It’s like if they made a quilt: They took all these little pieces of all this material, and all this fabric for making a wonderful quilt, and somehow you sew it all together to create another whole big blanket. That’s about the best way I can describe what the Avalanches do.

It’s just phenomenal. It’s quite different and it’s all done from bits and pieces of things, until they have created a whole new work. A lot of the other artists may be taking a guitar lick or a drum loop, all of which is fine. But what the Avalanches do is just something amazing that nobody else has ever done.

See also: The Ultimate Beastie Boys Sample Source Collection.

The influence of ‘Maps’ by Yeah Yeah Yeahs


There is another story surrounding Maps though. One that very rarely gets told.

The story of how – despite it only getting to No.26 in the UK Charts; and barely even scraping its way onto the US Billboard Hot 100 – the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have recorded and released what may well be the single most influential song of the 21st century so far.

Its impact has been quiet but undeniable. Since it was released (first in 2003, on the album Fever To Tell; then as a single in its own right in early 2004) practically every last part of that song has been sampled, covered or copied in a number of other artists’ work.

Three songs in particular, each released five years apart, have used Maps in three very different ways. Each of those songs has arguably defined (or helped to define) the era of pop in which they were released. One of them may even have altered the course of pop music forever.

The only other thing to add to the ‘Since U Been Gone’ section would be Ted Leo’s masterful strumming medley:

15 songs by The Monkees

Andy Greene interviewed The Monkees for Rolling Stone as part of the run up to the 50th anniversary of the TV show debut. Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith talk about 15 key songs:

Listen to the Band (1969)

Mike Nesmith: This has a really interesting pedigree. I write half a chapter in my new book about it because it was such an unusual moment. The Monkees series was over and we’d already done the movie. That kind of put a tag on everything. I wanted to go down to Nashville while I still had some Monkee money and have my songs played by the Nashville cats like David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan and Norbert Putnam. These were the guys that put together this extraordinary music that launched a cultural revolution with Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and the whole R&B thing.

When I went into the studio it was a completely different vibe then the Wrecking Crew guys in L.A. Those guys did commercials, orchestral stuff, TV shows and so forth. In Muscle Shoals, it was all R&B all the time. They were exceptional players. I played the song for them and they were like, “Yeah, that’s cool.” We laid down the tracks, and when I went back to Los Angeles I added horns to it.

I was thrilled with the result. I ran into Richard Perry, who was a producer of some note at the time and very successful with big acts. I met him on Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” record. I said, “Richard, I just did this record and I’m so proud of it. I really want to play it for you.” He said, “Oh, that is pretty good.” I said, “It’s gonna be on the next record. I’ll be happy to get you one.” He said, “Yeah, okay. I don’t think I’d ever buy a Monkees record, just on principal.” I just thought, “Wow, that’s what this is born into.” It was born an orphan. There was no place for it, no traction.

I absolutely love The Monkees—please don’t have the incorrect assumption that they are untalented or somehow not worthy of your attention. Go and buy Headquarters.

The article also includes a discussion of the wonderful recent single Me & Magdalena, written by Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie).