“There’s More to the Song Than Meets the Ear” by Jay Babcock (Arthur, 2007)

There’s More To The Song Than Meets The Ear

by Jay Babcock

Posted Thu Nov 1, 2007 in Arthur’s blog on Yahoo

“You proved to the world what can happen with a little bit of love and understanding and SOUNDS.” – Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock at the peaceful three-day festival’s close

Following up the earlier post on the subject, a few more reflections on Radiohead’s In Rainbows end run around the existing music industry…

There’s a good case to be made that music is humanity’s oldest form of communication, its earliest artform. For the tens of thousands of years that homo sap has wandered the planet, always in groups, sitting round campfires every night, music has been present only when three things were present: performer, listener and peace. Outside of the solitary performer-listener—call him the Lone Whistler—music was necessarily a social, peaceful activity—an occasional but integral part of the sound of being alive in the world. It was something that even seemed trans-human, in that animals made sounds that sounded like music to us (birdsongs, doghowl choirs, etc). The songs could be old, or new, or both, but they only existed in one moment: the here-and-now. They grounded us with each other.

If this sounds too abstract, try this thought experiment. Imagine if machinery suddenly stopped working—the grid goes down, batteries don’t work, oil’s stopped up. We’re back in the Paleolithic. Where and when would you hear music? You’d only hear it in-person. That is the way we humans have successfully lived for 99% of our history on this planet. It turns out you really did have to be there. You wouldn’t encounter music otherwise.

Furthermore, in this scenario, which likely obtained across the 100,000 years of human history, and which is still present in some surviving first people cultures on Earth, music accompanied times of peace. Yes, there is music that accompanies combat or suffering—warsongs, field labor songs—but Music seems to be a quality of human culture that flows most and fullest and most pleasantly in peacefulness—in that existential moment of fundamental non-aggression between performer and listener. We break bread together, we smoke together, we reason together, we goof together, and we make music together.

For all of this time, then, there was more to music than meets the ear. But the communication technology manufacturing revolution of the last 150 years has changed everything. The transmission of sound across time (through recording playback machines) and space (through electric communication—telephone, radio, internet, etc.) is the new norm. It is the way music is experienced by most humans, most of the time. And with it comes a detachment from the here-and-now, a detachment from the act of music’s production itself, and of course some kind of detachment from other humans altogether. Music used to shorten the space between us. Today, most of the time, for most of us, music actually widens the gap.

Music is no longer an emblem of peace, something we pretty much only encounter when in peace with others. We now encounter it everywhere, all the time, as a disembodied fact. This lessens our incentive to be in peace with each other, and in peace with our environment—music is no longer one of the sweet rewards for having found a way to get along with each other. In food terms, we’ve traded organic sweets for industrial sugar. The result is the same: cavities. Society rots as we enjoy a second-hand lifestyle of cheap highs.

The coming end of the global music industry’s physical infrastructure, hastened by Radiohead’s recent selfish action, which will only make it even harder for our best musicians to do their work, needs to be seen in this moral, or at least historical, context. Does music as free, disembodied computer file close the gap between humans—and between humans and their environment—or does it further widen it? Does it bring Music any closer to the temple of peace? Doubtful. The so-called digital revolution is not just killing the music industry—it’s killing Music herself, by reducing and degrading our experiences with her, by removing almost all of the social, physical and analog aspects of music that have been so historically beneficial to human well-being. Her grace lost, her gifts abused and cheapened, Music does survive, here and there. But you’re less likely than ever to encounter her essence. What have we lost? Well, you’ll know when you feel it—and I bet you won’t be alone with your iPod when it happens.

Jay Babcock is editor/owner of Arthur Magazine.

“A twilight world of magick without a New Age sugar-coating, and darkness without Goth cliches”: John Coulthart on a particular variety of recent British electronic music (Arthur, 2007)

An Invitation to the Electric Seance

by John Coulthart

Posted Dec 14, 2007 on the Arthur blog at Yahoo

At precisely 20:02 on the 20th February, 2002 (20/02, 2002 in the UK date system), nine people gathered at the banks of the River Thames where it passes the Greenwich Observatory at 00 longitude, the world’s Prime Meridian. They were there to perform “a mass for palindromic time,” “to celebrate and to devastate, to perform an act of chronological terrorism, strike a blow to the heart of the Great Wyrm time” as one of the participants, Mark Pilkington, described it. If use of the word “terrorism” seems ill-advised it should perhaps be remembered that the Greenwich Observatory was the site of a genuine bomb attack by a French anarchist in 1894, an event which inspired Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent.

The 2002 ritual is one of the more striking manifestations of a largely unobserved current of inspiration running through the margins of British electronic music in recent years. A loose network of musicians have been following similar paths of interest or obsession, paths that frequently end up in places where ritual, magick and paranormal occurrence are the spur for musical invention. Themes and reference points include weird tales and ghost story writers (especially some of the names that influenced HP Lovecraft), psychogeography (or the physical examination of the psychic qualities of our cities), renegade science, and nostalgia for half-remembered (or mis-remembered) films and television, typically science fiction and horror. These groups are eager to use their work to lift the veil on the mundane and shine a light into occluded zones. What they’re delving into might be called “occulture” (for want of a better term), “occult” meaning hidden, and it’s with hidden, forgotten or secret arts that occulture concerns itself.

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THE SUMMIT AWAITS: Peter Relic on Ellen Allien’s “BoogyBytes, Vol. o4” (Arthur, 2008)


A New Mix Of Beats To Make You Run For The Hills

by Peter Relic

Posted April 28, 2008 in Arthur’s blog on Yahoo

In 2006 LCD Soundsystem released 45:33, a Nike-sponsored iTunes download specifically designed to last the length of a workout. Its headphone-friendly beats projected an arcing ebb-and-flow fully compatible with, say, hauling ass in a perspiration-wicking outfit on your programmable treadmill. Not that James Murphy ever used it for that purpose.

In its conception and execution, 45:33 implied the creation of a micro-genre: dance music made for working out instead of for the dancefloor. Of course, maybe the genre already existed. What, you never heard of maximum impact minimal techno? Intelligent disassociative cardiocentric endorphin house?

Anyway, the good news for iPod-addicted workout junkies is that the best runner’s soundtrack since 45:33 is upon us: BoogyBytes, Vol.04 mixed by Berlin beat moll Ellen Allien. Even if the iPod still behaves way too much like a wonky Intellivision controller. And nothing will ever beat having someone drive alongside you blasting the Chariots Of Fire theme out their car window.

The running time of Allien’s mix is 1:06:08, a full ligament stretch longer than LCD’s aerobic festivities. While Allien’s mix comes with no particular designation for ideal use, the accompanying one-sheet states: “The bass drum is not set into the foreground as it is not intended to dominate the feelings of the listener.” It’s cerebral listening (what Berlin techno isn’t?) but Allien’s selections all originate from some inner charge, rather than being barrages of external force. Kinda like if a cheerleading squad did their routines sotto voce.

I took the mix for a test run on a five-mile stretch of the Josephine Saddle towards Strawberry Peak in the Angeles Crest Forest–one of those places that L.A. haters would be gutted to learn is only a 20-minute drive from Hollywood.

The initial quarter mile is a hopscotch scrabble across the bed of a waterfall-fed stream. The static and breathy Kraut-talk of Agf’s “Liniendicke” comes first in the mix. No beats yet. It’s as the trail proper picks up that the pulse of Vera’s “In The Nook” kicks in. The path is über-narrow, the ascent equally steep. A take-off tone crescendos into a steady ponging pulse. The music demands a steady stride and soon I’ve gained enough elevation to be afforded a view. What began as an overcast morning is breaking up, sunlight flaring purplish green tints across the scrubby chaparral. Gorgeous. A few minutes of running later I’m navigating a crumbly ledge dropping off to a dark rocky pool hundreds of feet below as the byte-diced voice in Sozadams’ “Eyes Forlon” quips “What kind of sh*t is that?” Excellent question.

Running downhill can be tougher than going up, but when the trails drops off to cross the stream the momentary respite is welcome. Then the uphill begins again. This is the second, more gradual half of the climb. Nevertheless as the circuitous path spools upward it’s hard to get a sense of distance gained. Long minutes pass. Lizards skitter underfoot. Goldenbush blooms multiply. Hamstrings announce their stress. The chant “Music is improper!” (from the Friendly People track of the same name) brings some well-timed comic relief.

With its black oaks and snowy peaks, the Angeles Crest offers a wonderfully varied landscape. A little bit Andes, a little bit Appalachia. The blinkered darkness of Sascha Funke’s “Double Checked” shares a seam with the pep-club handclaps of “Withdrawl” by Gaiser. As in nature so goes the mix, its diversity maintaining a strong sense of congruity. Now running close to the hour mark, I’m hoping the percussive pops I’m hearing are coming from my headphones and not my kneecap. When I finally see the top of the tree-line, I’m convinced that the mountain top is around the next switchback.

Of course it isn’t. Before me stands a cliff wall cross-hatched by the fading path. Nevertheless this is the last push, the summit awaits, and the bass-line from Kassem Mosse’s “A1” insists put your back into it!

At the top, hikers rest atop a concrete obelisk. Finally I reach them. The last track, Little Dragon’s “Twice,” arrives with optimum timing. It’s a gorgeous piano ballad to begin with, but Allien has twerked out a new beat-free intro to the song, an unadorned wash of sculpted tones. As it fills my head I spy a thread-thin trail extension. I scramble up. Another minute and I’ve got to be close to 5000 feet elevation. There’s no one here, nowhere left to go. The temperature drops precipitously as a cold mist whips away all visibility. A moment later the fog passes. A gorgeous panorama is revealed, rays of ragged light shifting across the dozen interlocking vales below. It’s gotta be more sublime any light show in any nightclub ever. Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano sings her weary but soul-refreshing hymn, repurposed here by Ellen Allien as a reminder: Live to run another day.

Peter Relic is a poet, journalist, trombonist and contributing editor to Arthur Magazine.

“It’s Medicinal!: The Hand-Sewn Power Of Little Wings” by Trinie Dalton (Arthur, 2008)

It’s Medicinal!: The Hand-Sewn Power Of Little Wings

by Trinie Dalton

Originally published Jan 16, 2008 on Arthur’s Yahoo blog

Soft Pow’r, the new Little Wings album, wields its quietude like a sword. Lead singer Kyle Field rambles through tunes pondering solitude and longing, but his sad songs have an acidic, transformative edge: gentle guitar lullabies strummed underneath harmonized, twangy vocals that are often compared to Neil Young’s. Current bandmates Lee Baggett, Curtis Knapp, Adam Forkner, and Jona Bechtolt amp up the enterprise in parts; some songs, like “Free Bird,” have a simple country edge, while others, like “Beep About,” are more jazzy and abstract. Field mentions via email that he likes playing loud live, but hadn’t had the desire to record loud music in awhile. He says Soft Pow’r has a “mediciney” feel.

Soft Pow’r is less wizard-inflected than Little Wings’ previous album, Magic Wand: there’s more direct lyrics about the songwriter’s moods, and the musings detail specific people and settings. In the past Field has eschewed blunt narrative messages, mostly declining interviews in favor of writing songs cryptic or whimsical enough to encourage interpretive guessing.

Listening to Magic Wand, I’d suspected that Little Wings were mellow, canyon-dwelling elves who played crystal-powered, ancient machines for their songs featuring whale mountains and a wand who hides inside someone’s robe. Field has described exploring mystical themes through harmonic music as his desire “to study the patterns and relationships between lines, and to think of singing as weaving the sound’s fabric.”

But with Soft Pow’r‘s first line, “Totally lost in the fog, who’s not?” Little Wings launch into several tracks about memory—remembering the past to grasp the present. “Gone Again,” a bluesy tune about someone sitting on a beach, “out of touch,” conjures up a narrator lamenting a missing loved one. The lyric, “I feel a breath but it’s not from my mouth,” in “Warming” evokes an image of a ghost searching for signs of life.

Nature is the buoy keeping characters afloat in Little Wings’ music, providing the free, open space where one discovers feelings long buried. Emotional states in Field’s music have always been conveyed through nature metaphors. Throughout my favorite Soft Pow’r song, “Scuby,” about a boy mysteriously departed, sun slants through windows, pumpkins are carved and candlelit, and tall trees sway in an Autumn tribute heralding a change of season as much as change of friendship. Field feels that describing human conditions through nature’s cues creates timeless songs that remind the listener of mortality. Soft Pow’r offers nature as solace: self-reflecting and medicinal, like the album itself.

Soft Pow’r, just released on Field’s new imprint RAD with upstream support from Marriage Records, links Field’s visual talents with the musical. Field is an exhibiting artist who makes earthy yet ethereal colored pencil and watercolor drawings–he has already designed a skateboard deck for RAD, and his friend Richard Swan has artfully hand-sewn Soft Pow’r promotional patches to sell on RAD’s website. These are no average patches; Swan once mailed me a customized wool sweater covered with Sasquatch patches, including a giant, brown foot with a question mark cut out of it, and a patchwork Bigfoot scene depicting the beast caught by a camera lens. I love men who sew!

Check out RAD: marriagerecs.com/rad/ rad.html

Check out Kyle Field’s drawings: www.kyledraws.com


TRINIE DALTON is an author and frequent contributor to the free transgenerational counterculture bimonthly Arthur Magazine. Her latest books are the illustrated novella A Unicorn Is Born (Rizzoli) and Wide Eyed (Akashic), a collection of short stories.

“Destroying Britney For Profit: Notes On Jann Wenner, Clive Davis And Other Vampires In Decline” by Joe Carducci (Arthur, 2008)

Destroying Britney For Profit: Notes On Jann Wenner, Clive Davis And Other Vampires In Decline

by Joe Carducci

Originally published Mar 5, 2008 on Arthur’s Yahoo blog

It was a bit much to read Rolling Stone’s recent cover story on Britney Spears. It was probably written by Vanessa Grigoriadis, though three others are accused of “additional reporting.” But none of these wrote this sentence:

“She’s the perfect celebrity for America in decline: Like President Bush, she just doesn’t give a f**k, but at least we won’t have to clean up after her mess for the rest of our lives.”

That one’s gotta be by Jan Wenner. (His byline has been Jann Wenner since he went skiing in Gstaad in the early seventies and fell in love with Alpine Teutonic machismo.) But this particular issue’s real offenses were:

1. Wenner Media’s corrupt humility in the Britney piece, where Rolling Stone is counterposed to OK magazine, a Brit competitor just rolling out an American edition. You’d never know that it was Jan himself who brought the fleet street scumbag sensibility up from the Florida-based drugstore tabloids and onto supermarket shelves via his own Us Weekly. “Us!” As if! The PR media began to turn on its celebrity subjects when the movies, TV and music that featured them began to be faked even more cynically in the 1980s. It’s Jan’s cash that keeps those jackals with their digicams running through the streets of Los Angeles after Britney whether she’s coming from or going to rehab, court, or the mall. He debased the People magazine formula and now the Brits are setting up directly to chase him downmarket.

2. The same issue’s piece on Clive Davis wherein Rich Cohen attempts to fob off this pop vampire as the last of the “record men.” It’s right there in the article: He was the first of the suits, not the last of the record men! He made Barry Manilow record “Mandy” which don’t you know made his whole career possible! Who edits this rag?! Clive Davis was last seen trying to break down Kelly Clarkson with the promise of turning her into a Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston! Sounds like an actionable threat to me. Only a true record man would hire Mike Watt to play on a pop session, and Davis opposed it.

Wenner is the perfect mogul for a Media in decline.

According to the new issue of The Atlantic (again a Britney cover), the gossip sites see their heavy traffic “during the corporate lunch hour, from women between the ages of 16 and 34.” What is Britney exploring for her audience? Author David Samuels writes,

“In the dark sewer of misanthropic, gynophobic, and Rabelaisian epithets running through the comments section of celebrity blogs, one can also find gems of authentic emotional connection to celebrity foibles… A good number of readers seem to write in the openly delusional… belief that if their post is sincere or hateful enough, the walls separating their own lives from the lives of celebrities will dissolve, transporting them from the backlit world of their LCD screens to the super-pollinated atmosphere of the media daisy chain.”

Samuels claims the blog-staff at X17, the leading paparazzi agency with a new retail blog, are “USC film-school graduates who prefer to conceal their real names in order to preserve their future viability in the rapidly disintegrating Hollywood system.” Good thinking, kids. I can somehow picture the films you will one day make.

Nowhere in this Britney coverage high and low is any consideration of what she is doing in her roomful of mirrors. She did more than “give it up” in the paparazzi parlance as other stars that subtly position or pose to help them create their shots. She seems to have doubled down on stardom just as it’s dissolving from something once as concrete as George Clooney’s bone structure into something ambient or liquid. Additionally, within the secret world of young women, new rapidly normalizing options like anti-depressants, cosmetic surgery, and period-suppression are whirling into the still unsettled breakthroughs of contraception and abortion. Lindsay Lohan’s sad reprise of Marilyn Monroe’s final photo session before her suicide in a recent issue of New York, and Heath Ledger’s simple drug O.D. seem small compared to the level Britney is operating on. She’s the new media supernaut; I hope she escapes their death watch and lives to tell, or dies in private.

Joe Carducci is the author of Rock and the Pop Narcotic and Enter Naomi: SST, L.A. and All That…. This is his first blog post for Arthur Magazine.

More Now Than Retro: Erik Davis On Lysergic Blues Rockers The Entrance Band (Arthur, 2008)

More Now Than Retro: Erik Davis On Lysergic Blues Rockers The Entrance Band

Originally published March 13, 2008 on Arthur’s Yahoo blog

A few nights ago I swung by San Francisco’s Café Du Nord to catch the Entrance Band, a psychedelic trio from LA that is riding a wave equally composed of fuzz and buzz. It’s the Noise Pop festival up here, and the crowd was full of groovy twentysomethings moving and shaking, in denim and suits and skirts, with thin-brimmed fedoras making a particularly notable showing. I hunkered down in front of the stage with my pint of bitter, chatting with bearded young men who were most psyched for what we were about to witness.

Trios are the most musically honest of rock combos: the singing is often secondary, and the guitarist has to carry a huge load. All sorts of interesting modulations between riff and solo are possible, with the wank potential of the latter restrained by the need to sustain the flow with a thickness of tone and a rhythmic sinuousness. In a trio, everyone has to be up to snuff, and all three of these characters–guitarist Guy Blakeslee, drummer Derek James, and bassist Paz Lenchantin–were up to their nostrils in the stuff. Ferocious entertainment.

Usually I only stick around past the first couple songs if the drummer is actually saying something, or at least respects the groove and does not rely on cymbals and bash to conjure up energy. Derek James was definitely on–he played with intensity but without slop, he held the beats tight while shifting the center within and between songs. But I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to the guy because I was getting all weak-kneed before Blakeslee’s guitar.

A lanky lefty with long hair and skinny wrists, Blakeslee’s one of the best young rock players I have seen in a while. His restless intensity is balanced with a methodical cool, and he managed to fuse far more eras and styles than your more typical devotion to ’60s blues-rock requires. Along with reviving the bends and boogie of Fillmore West lysergia, he also explored a raft of later metal and psych styles, including some minor key and middle-eastern modes that added witchiness to the bemushroomed killin floor. He also milked much fun from dense clusters of melodic hammer-ons that reminded me of, believe it or not, Eddie Van Halen (and that’s a compliment, chumps!). And while Blakeslee coaxed lots of delicious analog-sounding spooge out of his rack of FX, he was also perfectly willing to exploit the more crystalline echo labyrinth of fully digital effects.

Looking past the long hair and the classic Fenders, I saw a band that was way more Now that retro. Just the way that Brett Morgan’s new animated doc has rebranded the Chicago Seven as the Chicago Ten, the Entrance Band has rebranded ‘60s political and sonic clamor into something that a slicker, media-saturated era can embrace. Their riffs are not pop, but the band has an infectious charm that will, I hope, take them beyond the velvet ghetto of contemporary psych.

I mostly chalk up to this charm to their sense of the beat, which has definitely passed through the eras of disco and New Wave and survived. Bassist Paz Lenchantin, who both fulfilled and transcended the archetype of the chick bassist, devoted herself to a steady pulse that communicated both conviction and pop propulsion. A couple times, and without the usual feel-good grin, she raised her hands over her head to clap out the beat with the crowd. There was something almost communal about it, like she wanted to draw the audience back into the Movement through shared fusion in the beat. The band’s political lyrics–“M.L.K.,” etc.–were similarly earnest but mostly seemed kinda dumb to me. But I didn’t care. I just sipped my ale and waited for Blakeslee’s squalls to bust their moves. Okay, I clapped along with everyone too.

Erik Davis has a pretty spiffy website at www.techgnosis.com. He writes a column for Arthur Magazine called “The Analog Life.”

What The Heck Is Arthur Anyway?: A Quick Introduction by Jay Babcock (Arthur, 2007)

What The Heck Is Arthur Anyway?: A Quick Introduction

by Jay Babcock

Originally posted Oct 25, 2007 on Arthur’s Yahoo blog

What the heck is Arthur anyway?

Arthur is a critically acclaimed, transgenerational global counterculture magazine. We’ve been publishing it once every two months since 2002, giving it away free at record shops, used bookstores, coffeehouses, art galleries, movie theaters, shoe stores, hair salons, nightclubs, divebars, libraries, opium dens, juicerias, yoga studios, punk houses, all-ages venues, meditation spaces, ice cream trucks, colleges, food co-ops and other freak hideouts across North America. (If you haven’t seen Arthur before, you can order a hard copy from arthurmag.com. Of course if you need it NOWNOWNOW, you can download our latest issue as a PDF from our website also — but I gotta say the hard copy is really where it’s at — paper is portable, you don’t have to squint at it, the pages are designed to be viewed in a space bigger than most computer monitors anyway, and best of all, you can read magazines in the great outdoors — without using up any energy).

Arthur‘s mission is… um… Well, the main thing is it’s a labor of love. We cover what we want to cover. We write about what we want to write about. Generally speaking, we’re interested in the eternal underground, the edge of the envelope where freedom is freer, that tricky territory where new, progressive modes of art and behavior are tried out, whatever the period, whatever the mode. Kalakuta, Haight-Ashbury, Fort Thunder, Sao Paolo, Bolinas, the Lower Eastside, WhamCity: every interesting scene, or personage, is eligible. In each issue of Arthur, we gather together the best available talent — writers and photographers, artists and connoisseurs, filmmakers and video game designers, political actionists and festival organizers, ground-level poets and high-altitude observers — and let them share with us what they’ve found that is of particular interest, value, use. The idea is to bring stuff to the public’s attention — for free — that isn’t the dreary pop gunk that’s in our faces 24/7.

We’re not doing anything new, really. Just last week, The New Yorker ran a feature on the great learned historian Jacques Barzun, which included this tidbit: “In 1951, Barzun, [Lionel] Trilling, and W. H. Auden started up the Readers’ Subscription Book Club, writing monthly appreciations of books they thought the public would benefit from reading. The club lasted for eleven years, partly on the strength of the recommended books, which ranged from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition and partly on the strength of the editors’ reputations.”

That’s not to suggest that Arthur‘s team of contributors is of that stature, only that we share the same general program of cultural uplift — a desire to be something of more use than the general consumer guide that masquerades as a magazine in these sad, devolving times. In the last few years, Arthur‘s contributors have included Byron Coley & Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, whose regular “Bull Tongue” review column has been absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary underground culture; authors Trinie Dalton, Douglas Rushkoff, Erik Davis, Brian Evenson and Daniel Pinchbeck; veteran journalists Kristine McKenna, Peter Relic, Gabe Soria, Daniel Chamberlin, Dave Reeves, Sorina Diaconescu, John Payne and Eddie Dean; photographers Melanie Pullen, Eden Batki and Susannah Howe; and countless other writers, cartoonists, photographers, poets and –of course– designers.

Has Arthur made a difference? Not as much as we’d like. A magazine’s cultural impact is always going to be hard to measure in quantitative terms. But, that said, it’s been interesting to watch how artists–and ideas–that got their first airing in a national magazine in Arthur‘s pages have subsequently entered the dim edges of the mainstream’s consciousness. Devendra Banhart? Read the first interview he ever gave anywhere in the pages of December 2002’s Arthur No. 2, or check out the cover feature on him in Arthur No. 10–which also featured the first long-form interview anywhere with Joanna Newsom, who herself would be covered in even greater depth in an award-winning piece by Erik Davis in Arthur No. 25. Ohioan blues rawkers The Black Keys, comics genius and magus Alan Moore, quixotic rock sibling duo Fiery Furnaces, drone-metal band Sunn 0))), avant-psych-pop group Animal Collective, M.I.A., West Coast psychedelic roarers Comets on Fire, the uncategorizable Six Organs of Admittance, the good ol’ Howlin’ Rain, comics genius Grant Morrison and woozy psychedelic soul nomads Brightblack Morning Light all received serious, substantial coverage in Arthur a while ago — not because we’re trendspotters or hypesmiths, but because we simply dug what they were doing while everybody else was busy covering…well, something else.

As for why the magazine is named Arthur…well, that would be telling. Have a guess in the Comments section below.

Jay Babcock is editor/owner of Arthur Magazine

“Nothing Left to Lose: What Happens When Music Becomes Worthless?” by Jay Babcock (Arthur, 2007)

Nothing Left to Lose: What Happens When Music Becomes Worthless?

by Jay Babcock

Originally posted Oct 1, 2007 on Yahoo’s Arthur blog

In a few days Radiohead’s new album In Rainbow will be available on a pay-what-you-like basis to anyone who wishes to download it from them. Take it as a acknowledgment of what everybody already knows: in the digital world that the transnational entertainment-communications conglomerates have done so much to summon in the last 25 years, without apparent regard for the long-term consequences, recorded music—music that people used to buy—has become free. For established artists like Radiohead—or Prince, who launched his new album via a CD tacked on the front of a British Sunday newspaper, or his lordship Paul McCartney, who debuted his latest album through Starbucks, or (worst of all) the Eagles, who are releasing their new album exclusively through an anti-union discount store chain that shall remain nameless—this is all fun ‘n’ games. Like most artists, they’ve witnessed the music industry’s legendarily shady accounting practices for years, incredible feats in which record companies stayed in business yet somehow, when it came time to pay the creators, never made a dime. So it’s gotta be a big kick for all of these dudes to be able to thumb their shapely noses at those who have been screwing them for years. They ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more, and they’re telling us all about it.

Well, good for all of these guys (except the Eagles, of course). It’s hard to shed a tear for mega-corporations whose record companies are run by beancounters who are bad at math. And most of us weren’t likely to buy a new Radiohead album anyway, so “free” just means some of us will download it, listen to it and delete it. No loss there for anyone, I guess. Meanwhile, Radiohead will receive tons of applause from not just their loyal fanbase, but also the “information wants to be free” internet booster contingent. They’ll be the subject of every music-related conversation for weeks. And will rake it in at the turnstiles, as they always do, when they perform live. Though their music is now worthless, Radiohead’s value as an income-earning entity has increased. Savvy.

But hold on. What happens to those no-to-low-income artists, many of them doing signficant work, who haven’t established themselves in the pre-burn/download era? Going deeper, what happens to the entire infrastructure of artists, enthusiasts, record labels, live venues, stores and media (TV, radio, print, etc) that made Radiohead’s ability to give away their music possible in the first place? What happens to this ecology, unbalanced and out-of-whack as it already was, when its currency has become almost completely worthless?

The most immediate effect is already apparent: there are fewer and fewer mediated (or, curated) places devoted to music. In America, which has an underdeveloped commons, those places are marketplaces: in other words, record stores. And the really good record stores in this country—the ones owned and operated by knowledgeable enthusiasts, staffed by dayjobbing musicians and music freaks, local clearinghouses of art and information, where meaningful discoveries and lasting connections have historically been made—started disappearing a few years ago and extinction seems to be nearing. What’s going to replace these stores? The schools got rid of significant art appreciation and application long ago. Public libraries, our repositories of cultural knowledge, are criminally underfunded and understaffed. Publicly funded performance venues of all sizes exist all over Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, but good luck finding such spaces in the USA.

These spaces are important, because by containing elements of both chance and quality control, and by being in the real, physical, analog world, they increase the quality and complexity of communication between people. You take those away and you guaran-goddamn-tee a society of atomized, alienated consumers, disconnected cubicle people who gaze at computer screens more than each other’s faces: humans, in other words, in love with machines. Which, I guess, is what “Radiohead” means. Goodbye, art, community and communion: hello, paranoid androids.

Jay Babcock is editor/owner of Arthur Magazine

Behold! The Year’s Finest Rock Album: Oliver Hall on Julian Cope’s new one (Arthur, 2007)

Behold! The Year’s Finest Rock Album

by Oliver Hall

Originally posted Dec 11, 2007 on Arthur’s Yahoo blog

Not so long ago, people could hardly wait for albums to come out, and with good reason: the album, for a time, was as good a vehicle for an artist’s ambition as a novel or a movie. The sleeve was a big-ass 12” x 12” art object you could put up on your mantle and scrutinize for days. The record itself had two sides, a formal restriction that forced artists to program their material into two sequences of songs, which meant that the artist was forced to listen to his or her material at least once before dumping it on the marketplace, and also that the artist was encouraged to consider the effect that sequence has on a group of songs. The phrase I most often yell at other motorists in Southern California, “MY WAR SIDE TWO MOTHERF***ER!!!” would have no meaning if Black Flag had not carefully integrated the three songs on that side into a single, illegal experiment in face surgery.

It’s not just because Julian Cope has taken the care to split his latest album, YOUGOTTAPROBLEMWITHME, into two discrete sides that it’s the best album I’ve heard this year, although the sequence is a beauty; to my ear it sounds like the world ends at least twice on side one. No, it’s because Cope’s record, a psychedelic polemic against monotheist religions and a psychic snapshot of the present moment, is only new album I’ve encountered this year (it says “2007 CE” right there on the spine) that fulfills the enduring promise of the New Rock Album. If your local record shop carries it — if there is a local record shop — you will sight it by its yellow, red and black cover, which reproduces a quote from Gore Vidal’s 1992 essay “Monotheism and its Discontents” in all caps and bold type, beginning “THE GREAT UNMENTIONABLE EVIL AT THE CENTER OF OUR CULTURE IS MONOTHEISM” and ending “I NOW FAVOUR AN ALL-OUT WAR ON THE MONOTHEISTS.” Beneath the text, the image of a massive, longhaired heathen rocker banging a bass drum lovingly painted with Cope’s crest (which depicts Odin’s sacrifice of his eye), ought to give you a clue to the sort of freaks you are dealing with: devoted, literate, pagan psychonauts committed to busting their guts and the chthonic Nuggets chords in the expression of Cope’s vision.

Cope’s work (records, books, web — see http://www.headheritage.co.uk) since the landmark album Peggy Suicide has elaborated a mythology and disclosed a scholarly curiosity about the world that makes him seem more and more like a genuine English visionary in the tradition of William Blake. What makes YOUGOTTAPROBLEMWITHME so remarkable is the balance Cope is able to maintain between his own obsessions and the violence of the time, so that Cope’s personal mythology enriches, rather than obscures, his imagination of the lives of different tribes of people trying to live together, or trying not to live together, all over the world. When Cope quotes the piano from the opening bars of Patti Smith’s “Gloria” at the end of the title track, or builds “Can’t Get You Out Of My Country” around the breakdown from Them’s “Gloria,” he’s reminding you that rock’n’roll has always defined the sacred as what’s right there in front of you, and drives the point home by sneering the phrase “invisiblegawwwwd” until it begins to sound like a Homeric epithet. I regret to say that the vinyl sounds like it was mastered by an agent for the casuists, as it is not nearly loud enough for my purposes. Pick up the double cd–the Arch-Drude wants you to listen to it in two “sides”–so you can let those steam-whistle post-Ubu synths get in there good and deep to dismantle your brain stem so you can properly reevaluate your cosmogony.

Oliver Hall is a contributor to ARTHUR MAGAZINE

CITY POET, COUNTRY POET: Mark Frohman on Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt reissues (Arthur, 2007)

City Poet, Country Poet

by Mark Frohman

Originally posted Dec 7, 2007 on Arthur’s Yahoo blog

While most of the country is stumbling over each other, filling shopping bags with the latest accessories to 21st century life, we at Arthur headquarters are leisurely loading up the annual time capsule in an effort to preserve some evidence of civilization’s existence for future generations. The capsule will be launched into orbit from an undisclosed location in the high desert at exactly 11:59 pm on December 31st and is scheduled to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, should it still exist, in 2095.

Filling the frontal lobe of the Soviet-designed, cigar-shaped capsule (Ebay score circa Y2K), are two of this past year’s standout reissue programs: the first three Leonard Cohen albums (Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Songs From A Room, Songs Of Love And Hate) and the first three Townes Van Zandt records (For The Sake Of The Song, Our Mother The Mountain, Townes Van Zandt–all available from Mississippi’s Fat Possum Records).

It was a good year to be reminded of the power of song. These collections celebrate two of this country’s finest lyrical poets; the fact that one of them is Canadian only adds to our pride. Both men have been loved and loathed, revered and scorned for their moody evocations of wandering desire, sparse and haunting arrangements, and, to some uptight ears, flat and unmusical singing voices.

While similarities between the lives of Cohen and Van Zandt also abound–the old world family money and education, the brooding depression, the mythical lifestyle of earthly excesses (Cohen: women and wine, Van Zandt: wine and women, in that order)–Cohen was city poet to Van Zandt’s country poet. Cohen sings his songs of self from the perspective of an Old Testament Prophet transplanted in Greenwich Village. You don’t listen to his songs, you enter them, through a haze of incense and cigarettes, at 3 a.m., through an unmarked door in whatever bohemian neighborhood you temporarily call home. Van Zandt may have set out for the city but never quite made it there, distracted along the way by his cowboy fantasies, tumultuous romances, and the winding backroads that lead to the isolated cabin in Tennessee where he spent much of the ’70s. As he sings on “I’ll Be Here In The Morning” from both For The Sake Of The Song and Townes Van Zandt, “There’s no prettier sight than looking back at the town you left behind.”

While a finely penned lyric doesn’t seem to be first priority among today’s musical acts, in the late ’60s it must have mattered. Those big 12″ x 12″ lyric sheets were meant to be read and contemplated, preferably by candlelight while huddled around your turntable.

Recorded roughly during the same years (’67-’70) and locations (Los Angeles and Nashville), Cohen’s and Van Zandt’s first three records are each masterpieces of songwriting, modulating from simple love ballads to moral fables to surrealist (some might suggest psychedelic) visions in ways that speak in the particular vernacular of their chosen personas. The songs on these records carve out portraits of what in less cynical times was referred to as the Human Condition. Love, lust, death, demons, and loneliness wage battle among delicate arrangements of mostly acoustic instruments. The voices are deep and grounded, almost unexpressive narrators that belie the turbulent emotions boiling beneath the surface. The production treatment given to these albums is also key to their magical appeal. For both artists, the voice is always front and center, articulated, and clear, but various production anomalies make their albums less of the usual “folk singer” fare and closer to the realm of the more artistically minded “rock” album.

Cohen’s voice tends to embody both a whisper and a growl, inhabiting a rumbling frequency that seems to advance and recede from some dark reverberant tunnel. It is well known that Cohen fought to keep the arrangements minimal and drum-free on these early recordings but as we all know, the devil is in the details. The ghostly appearance of accompaniment by calliope, jew’s harp, strings, spaghetti western guitar, flutes, accordion, a children’s choir, flugel horn, and occasional percussion transport his records beyond genre and make them oddly timeless.

There is a little more variety as well as controversy in the Van Zandt catalog concerning the production that surrounds Townes’ polite East Texas drawl. Unlike Cohen, Van Zandt took a more Laissez-faire approach to the recording studio, thinking that if the songs were good enough they could withstand any producer’s meddling. His first record, For The Sake Of The Song, is almost universally criticized as overproduced, to the point that producer Cowboy Jack Clement has reportedly since apologized. The galloping percussion, droning recorders, wall-of-sound backing vocals, and waltzing harpsichord, all wrapped in a slushy reverb, certainly taint the album with a feeling of Hollywood cowboy kitsch that was probably not what Townes had in mind for 1967. At this distance though, its baroque stylings sound almost avant garde and it’s interesting to hear the energetic arrangements contrast downbeat tracks like “Waitin’ Around To Die.” By the time we get to the third album Townes Van Zandt, his re-recording of this track as well as several others from the first album, has settled into the sparse and pristine production style that would characterize most of the rest of his recordings, but flourishes of sporadic drums and the recurring harpisichord and recorder still sneak in on a few tracks. Our Mother The Mountain was the genre-defying transitional work between the two, and a shamefully underrated monument of late ‘60s musical history, with subtle atmospheric textures and gorgeous string arrangements that elegantly counterpoint Townes’ fever dream lyrics.

If the English language is eventually phased out with future generations in favor of a communication method based entirely on ringtones, the more curious members of this future society will at least be able to ponder the mysterious portraits that adorn the jackets and sleeves of these records. “Gods?,” they’ll wonder at the iconoclastic figures staring back at them. We are fortunate to still know the truth: not gods, but simply men with something to say.

Mark Frohman is Art Director of Arthur Magazine and shares Townes Van Zandt’s hometown of Houston, Texas.