Author Archives: critterjams

情報デスクVIRTUAL – 幌コンテンポラリー

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There are a number of genres which seem to exist in their own world; music that may cross over from time to time but mostly just gets talked about in the context of itself.  You know the ones – prog, metal, trance, IDM, etc.  Once you get somewhat deep into them you start to encounter the albums which take the identifying properties of the genre and crank ’em up to 11.  These are the albums which tend to be classics within their scene, albeit a lot more polarizing than most of the canonized stuff.  So like Nattens Madrigal for metal, Go Plastic for IDM, or almost everything Gentle Giant did for prog.  Maybe you dig ’em, maybe they hit you on a level that nothing else does, but you sure as hell wouldn’t play them for anyone who wasn’t indoctrinated already.

This gets interesting for vaporwave, a genre which became self-aware, ironic, and kinda shitty on Day 1.  Ramona Xavier, the woman behind 情報デスクVIRTUAL, (translation: Virtual Information Desk) knows this better than anyone, even remarking that she’s released some intentionally awful albums just to see if people would attempt to find a deeper meaning in it.  Those familiar with her work may have their suspicions as to which albums those are.  Truth is, vaporwave relies so much on the ideas of nostalgia, aesthetic, and atmosphere, concepts which mean totally different things to different people.  Maybe it sounds like a joke to you, but to someone else it might be weirdly profound, or something that manages to coax out a distant, very specific memory of childhood.   幌コンテンポラリー  (translates to: Contemporary Sapporo) was described by the artist herself as “a parody of American hypercontextualization of e-Asia circa 1995”.  I have no idea if she meant something by that, or if she just thought that’s what a vaporwave artist would say – after all, Ramona was all of three years old in 1995.  If you lived through the 90’s, especially if you played a lot of video games back then, you might be able to figure what she’s talking about there.  But don’t look too much into it.  幌コンテンポラリー  is not exactly intended to a serious statement – if the 4/20 release date (happy 5th birthday!) and 69 minute runtime don’t tip you off, then maybe the tracklisting will.  If you wanted to understand vaporwave without ever actually listening to it, a stroll through the song titles here would probably do it.

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20 YEARS ON: Mike Doughty – The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns (2016) / Soul Coughing – Irresistible Bliss (1996)

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“The more he releases, the more convinced I become that Mike Doughty has wrung the most greatness from the smallest amount of songwriting diversity of any artist since the Ramones.” – a quote from my man Chris Williams, whose Soul Coughing reviews convinced me to check out the band long ago.  As far as compliments go it’s about as backhanded as they come, but I’d wager that Doughty probably feels this way about himself.  The man approaches his solo career the same way one might in an office job when eying a promotion; always trying to put his foot out there and expand his horizons, attempting to stand out in the densely populated world of four-chord acoustic head-swingers, either by branching out into new, unexpected areas, or by finding new ways to put his music out there.  In the last decade, he’s written a musical, released a cut-n-paste EDM album, done a living room tour, sold personalized songs recorded directly onto tape recorders, ran three successful crowdfunding campaigns, written a book, released a hip-hop album, attended a songwriting camp, recorded three albums worth of Soul Coughing material, ran a subscription service, made an album of covers, and put out an EP of him literally busking in the street.  All this in between a cycle of relatively normal albums and tours.  Like him or not, the man’s got a pretty solid work ethic.

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Emerson, Lake, and Palmer – Works Vol. 1 and 2 (1977)

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Classic album anniversaries are usually a cool thing, a way to reflect back on an artist’s accomplishments and muse that “It still sounds great today!”  Anniversaries of their less popular, critically savaged follow-ups just make you feel old.  I follow a lot of prog guys on social media and it seemed that this St. Patrick’s day, the day on which ELP’s Works, Vol. 1 turned 40 years old, was kind of a big deal.  Don’t get me wrong, I know the main reason for the reflection has to do with the fact that Emerson and Lake both passed last year, which always sets off a round of “maybe we shouldn’t have been so mean to them”.  The truth is, it’s hard to be nice to ELP sometimes.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll stand up for their classic period as much as anyone.  Those four studio albums they did from 1970-1974, all great.  Even Pictures at an Exhibition I could be pressured into labeling a classic.  But it’s hard to think of too much positive to say about anything they did after that, unless you wanna go the “not as bad as everyone says it is” route.
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The Happy Schnapps Combo – Raise It! (1991)

300x300If you want to understand small-town Wisconsin, consider the origin of the word “cheesehead”.  Once used as a derogatory term, Wisconsinites quickly adopted it and soon thereafter started regularly wearing foam slices of cheese on their heads.  Once upon a time Manitowoc had a Minor League team called the Skunks, named as such because we always let our rivals choose our team names.  We take “more bars than churches” as a point of pride, not an indictment of our character.  And we make fun of our thick Midwestern accents just as much as you do.  Before that no-good Steven Avery came around, Manitowoc’s most famous were the Happy Schnapps Combo, a fusion of German and Polish polka music that gave the small town its very own sound.  A parody of portly, backwoods, beer-drinkin’ hicks, made up entirely of portly, backwoods, beer-drinkin’ hicks.  Gotta write what you know!
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Happy Mondays – Yes, Please! (1992)

IMG_5168My review of Devo’s Shout! last month caused me to consider the term “disaster album”.  Yes, Shout! was a critical and commercial failure which got Devo dropped from their label and (temporarily) split up the band, but I figured I could do one better.  When I think of a total disaster album, the first thing that comes to mind is Yes, Please! by the Happy Mondays.  Not only was it a commercial flop that was savaged by nearly everyone (including the infamous Melody Maker review – “No, thanks”), but it wound up costing so much money that Factory Records went bankrupt.  The money of course ended up going mostly up the noses of the band members – in an attempt to get the group off heroin, the label sent them to Barbados, resulting in the Mondays developing a newfound affinity for crack cocaine.  When they ran out of money, they sold Eddy Grant’s furniture to buy more drugs.  Which then led to Shaun Ryder rather infamously holding the master tapes hostage for more cash, even though the songs were still very much incomplete.  (He got £50)  Bez wound up crashing a car and breaking his arm, halting production of the album (and sucking up more Factory cash).  And so on.
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The Plastics – Welcome Plastics/Origato Plastico (1980)

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I’ve had a post about The Plastics half in the can for nearly a year now, but the sudden death of Toshio Nakanishi inspired me to get off my ass and finish it.  For those not in the know, Toshio (also known as Tycoon To$h) was one of the most important figures in the Japanese hip-hop and electronic scene, having fronted half a dozen different projects and collectives which brought the sounds of the west to the east.  Granted much of that is difficult to find in the States, outside of compilations and one-off projects by artists like Cornelius where he’ll suddenly appear.  This scattershot approach is understandable, as Toshio always seemed to be splitting his time between music and graphic design, which is what wound up giving him his big break.  He did designs for a Talking Heads book during one of their Japan tours, and slipped David Byrne a Plastics demo tape, which he promptly sent off to the B-52’s manager, thinking they sounded somewhat alike.  Eventually this leads to a deal with Island Records, which allowed them to tour in the US.
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CDs I bought in 1998

For my 12th birthday, I received a particularly great gift – a $50 gift certificate to the local music store.  Back then this was a pretty big deal and not something to be taken lightly.  I had maybe six CDs tops, plus whatever I could steal from my parents.  And with a two-dollar allowance, whatever I got was probably going to have to last until Christmas at the very least.  But it’s more than that when you’re in those preteen years; music was an identity.  I have no clue if middle schoolers these days are sharing Spotify playlists or whatever but back then it was all about what’s in your CD jacket.  As someone just about to enter 7th grade this was very important to me.  If you had cool music tastes then you were somewhat cool, unless you weren’t cool, then you were a poser.  If you listened to what your parents liked, then you were a loser, or you were poor.  If you liked stuff that nobody ever heard of, then you were an enigma, but nobody wanted to talk to you.  Am I getting this right?  Unfortunately there were not very many avenues for me to discover new music; I had MTV and the radio, and that was about it.  Every music video was like a sales pitch.
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