Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley, 2018) is a film that critiques the culture of capitalism writ large, indicting the evils of instrumental reason, instant gratification, and corporate celebrity. It incorporates elements and themes from works as disparate as Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012), Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000), Roger Avary’s adaptation of another of Brett Easton Ellis’s Bateman novels, The Rules of Attraction (2002), Roman Polanski’s entire oeuvre (1965-present), and Mikhail Lermontov’s novel A Hero of our Time (1840!). Yes, one may as well mention also Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1988) and Tina Fey’s Mean Girls (2004) while we’re tossing reference salad.

Thoroughbreds was good. Leading up to seeing it I had been worried that it would simply be more nihilist, nothing-means-anything culture-jamming garbage like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was. I can’t tell you how upset I was after I finally got to see the best screenplay Oscar-winning film Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017), and I was forced to reconcile the fact that the two movies (Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) came out in the same year and purported to tackle the same subjects. One (Get Out) is a funny, incisive, terrifying masterpiece of a critique of racism and capitalism, and the other (Three Billboards) is a cynical and improbable deflection of the questions of racism, power, misogyny and militarism that focuses instead on meaningless interpersonal one-upmanship. I was offended that Three Billboards lingered in theaters in its ugly tastelessness like a potato growing eyes. God, Get Out was good. Why did that other movie hang around so long?

I digress.

Thoroughbreds, the movie I am actually writing about in the here-and-now, was good. However, the trailer I saw most often leading up to the film is misleading in important ways. On the one hand, being under a somewhat misbegotten impression of what a movie is going to be about can make the experience of watching a film more enjoyable in proportion to the unpredictability generated by information withheld in a preview. On the other, it may hinder some important interpretation of the film. A trailer may not only offer a false expectation for the narrative framework, but also an easy-to-hold-onto (and hard to shake) interpretive framework that could allow viewers to incorrectly attribute of some of the worst elements of the villain’s behavior to an unrelated cause. What am I talking about? Am I actually going to talk about this movie at all, or am I just going to go on and on about the trailer? Let’s find out!

The trailer introduces the two main protagonists of the film in terms of their emotional capacity. First, the bright yellow block text overlaying the screen reads, “This is Amanda. She Feels Nothing.”

Thoroughbreds, Dir. Cory Finley, 2018 Focus Features

This is followed by ice queen Lily’s appearance on the screen with the accompanying overlay that reads, “This is Lily. She Feels Everything.”

Thoroughbreds, Dir. Cory Finley, 2018 Focus Features

I know this is a trailer. I know it’s just an advertisement, that it’s just designed to get the audience of one movie excited enough to come back to see another one in the very same theater. It’s important to point out, however, that this framing of the story, when taken on its own, is a pretty big red herring. It is not the fact that Lily (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) has feelings that leads to her sociopathic behavior. (By the way, it is Lily, the one with feelings, who is the sociopathic villain of this film.) Rather, it is her lack of desire to heed those feelings, or to engage in empathy, or react to situations in her life or to the people around her in any remotely human way that destroys those closest to her.[note]Spoiler alert.[/note]

Contrary to what the name of the film would suggest (thoroughbreds in the plural, yeah?), and contrary also to the framing of the film in the trailer above, it is arguable that the film only really has one main protagonist, or that at the very least Lily occupies so much more central a role in the film than Amanda (played by Olivia Cooke) that, if Amanda were to be considered another main protagonist by dint of screen time alone, even then it would be by very distant billing. Amanda actually acts as a paired foil for Lily’s ruthlessness together with the late Anton Yelchin’s character, Tim. Both Amanda and Tim show differing degrees to which instrumental reason and violence can turn on their practitioners when faced with an adversary possessing even fewer scruples. Lily is the adversary to beat among the three moral line-walkers in the film’s triad.

Small-time suburban drug dealer Tim occupies a role similar to that of James Franco’s Alien from Spring Breakers. Alien is first introduced to the Spring Breakers audience as a hip-hop performer who is at peace holding hypnotic sway over delirious throngs at a spring break bacchanal, a kind of American libertarian mystic who believes himself to have unlocked certain secrets of spiritual freedom in the realization of his self-made, if ill-gained, material wealth. Tim, in contrast, is floundering amid the mansions and established wealth of his well-heeled suburban environment. Already cowering under the scrutiny imparted by previous jail time for statutory rape, Tim is the same character as Alien seen through the wrong end of a telescope. Rather than officiating, as Alien did, as high priest in the ritualized blowing off of self-indulgent college kids’ alpha-steam, we are first introduced to Tim as he is getting punched in the face by a high schooler while trying to sell drugs at a party to which he was not invited.

James Franco as Alien in Spring Breakers, Dir. Harmony Korine, 2012 A24

Franco’s Alien believes himself to be, and indeed at first appears to be, a kind of indigenous god-king in the Florida beach backwater colonized once a year by throngs of elite and aspiring college students desperate to sate their appetites for a good time. His actual place in the universe is made clear when he is encouraged to attack his rival head-on by small town girls who are plumbing depths and drives much more dangerous than Alien himself understands on their all-or-nothing spring break quest for kicks. Alien’s demise at these girls’ provocation proves that no one is exempt from the death lurking at the center of American materialism. Alien is undone by forces of ruthlessness from abroad that are bigger than he is, forces that put him in his proper place in the larger order of power and capital.

Anton Yelchin as Tim, Thoroughbreds, Dir. Cory Finley, 2018 Focus Features

On the other hand, the small-time drug dealer Tim from Thoroughbreds, while believing in the same ruthless accumulation of capital as does Alien, lives in the stately suburbs of capital’s most steady-handed (read: respectable) and ethically unencumbered practitioners. Despite his aspirations, he understands, living in the shadow of wealth and power as he does, the true stakes of the game, and has taken an honest measure of himself. He is unable to muster the courage to peddle his drugs to any but children, lest he run into competition that would quickly prove too ruthless for him. He is, however, goaded by his lesser form of pride into the unfortunate position of being blackmailed by Lily and Amanda to carry out a hit on Lily’s stepfather. Tim, realizing he is entirely out of his depth when faced with the girls’ senselessly calculated ruthlessness, saves himself by reneging on the deal. Yelchin’s character proves to be the lucky one. Correctly apprehending the gravity of this act of violence, he does not allow himself to be fooled into thinking he could wield the sort of selfish ruthlessness he and the other characters in the film valorize with their shared adulation of outlier disruptor figures like the oft-named and unschooled individualist Steve Jobs. The result of his choice is that he survives. This is where his story diverges from Alien’s. Amanda, on the other hand, suffers a different fate.

Catherine Deneuve as Carol, Repulsion, Dir. Roman Polanski, 1965, Criterion Collection

Like Carol in Polanski’s Repulsion, Amanda has developed into a stunted kind of young adulthood. Where Repulsion‘s Carol is the victim of past abuse and trauma that renders her unable to process or respond to perceptions of her sexuality, to threats, or to others’ advances in an adult capacity, Amanda has a greater level of awareness of her limitations. She admits she is incapable of feeling emotions. This inability makes her more capable of certain acts of violence, like the botched euthanasia of her lamed horse, an attempted act of mercy gone awry that was misinterpreted by her peer group and the court system as evidence of a criminal streak of cruelty, and for which she has become locally infamous. Polanski’s Carol is undone by the violence she attempts to turn back outward toward the ever-oncoming world of predatory men that is the product of her justifiably warped perception. Amanda is undone by her subscription to the pervasive belief in corporate disruptors and concomitant culture of instant gratification. Despite her awareness of her apparent emotional limitations, her inability to question the backdrop against which her and her peers lives play out allows her to consider that, without any explanation given by Lily, interpersonal violence on the level of the murder of Lily’s stepfather is not only possible, but justifiable whether or not Lily ever proffers a reason. Despite her awareness of her handicap, an awareness that stems from her desire to do good, her lack of an innate ability to process emotion, coupled with the atmosphere of her social milieu’s ambient adoration for capitalist disruptors and their ethically challenged brand of pirated success makes her more susceptible to the malign intentions of her sociopathic and homicidal friend. It makes her, unlike Tim (but very much like Carol in Repulsion), unable to grasp the gravity or the inhuman undoing power of violence.

It turns out that Lily, the well-heeled stepdaughter of conspicuously physically active and comically unlikable alpha-male-type Mark (whose odiousness is shorthanded by a photo of himself with a lion shot on safari and and a staged photo in kendo training garb while wielding an actual samurai sword), continuously seeks to harness others to commit acts of violence on her behalf for the gratification of getting her own way. As a social outcast, Amanda trusts her sociopathic friend Lily to a fault. In so doing, she perhaps betrays the real presence of emotion she feels stemming from the trauma of having to euthanize her own beloved horse. She, unbidden, conveniently provides the rationale for Lily’s stepfather’s murder by giving the only condition under which it would be possible: that it would “make the world a better place.” Amanda needs for there to be a “good” reason for violence, but this proves an insufficient safeguard against being coerced into doing the wrong thing.

Lily does not correct her friend’s incorrect surmise of her motivations. In fact, the only reason Lily wants to kill her stepfather is that she wants to kill her stepfather. He represents a minor inconvenience on her path to returning to boarding school after being expelled for an act of plagiarism for which she is not remotely conciliatory, and he poses a mildly annoying sensory presence in the house due to the racket from his exercise machine.

The atmosphere of unquestioned instrumental reason that tinctures the air the girls grew up breathing allows the ranking of some lives as inherently more worthwhile than others, and this is the avenue by which Lily is able to perform the crucial act of coercing Amanda into allowing herself to be accomplice to Lily’s stepfather’s murder. Lily manipulatively asks Amanda whether she doesn’t wonder if her life is not worth living because she’s incapable of feeling happiness. The foregrounding of the value of the fleeting, often impossible, and addictive sensation of “happiness,” leads Amanda to the conclusion that her life is, in fact, not worth living, and she agrees to be drugged and take the fall for the murder Lily is about to commit. She self-aware enough to understand she has emotional limitations, but she is unequipped to proceed with enough skepticism to question the value scheme against which her friend is asking her to appraise her life, let alone whether it is possible that her friend’s will to kill her stepfather can do anything but produce a net good in the universe. The radical capitalist propaganda that forms the background noise of these girls’ development is crucial to the success of sociopaths like Lily in carrying out their whims at others’ expense. So it is that Lily is able to victimize both her stepfather and her trusting, if creepily emotionally flat, friend Amanda in the course of getting what she wants.

To return to my criticism of the film preview begun above, because we do live in an atmosphere of easy solutions and received interpretations that is inimical to the deep critique of those things with which we come face to face on a daily basis, the preview’s insinuation that having feelings may have something crucial to do with the criminality that is clearly at the core of the film’s narrative is a ready-made framework of interpretation that runs directly counter to the movie’s overall arc and intent. The far more dangerous character is the one who allows others around her to think she has feelings, while in her cold calculation and ruthless drives she actually harbors no remotely human sensitivity to them within her. It is, after all, only the professedly emotionally bereft Amanda we ever see smile in the film. And when she does, though she is woefully unsuccessful in her bid, it is because she wants to exercise the freedom to make the effort to be good despite the fact that she lives in an environment that only rewards the bad. Contrary to the ready-made frame of interpretation provided by the marketing for the movie, feelings and people who know how to feel them are what the movie says we need more of. They’re not the problem. Feelings aren’t the pathology. Being human is not the problem here. What the movie is saying, to recall that aforementioned photo of Mark, Lily’s stepdad, posing with a lion he had killed, is that a culture that neutralizes empathy and valorizes competition for private gain elects the poacher president of the nature preserve, and that makes the rest of us prey.

It’s Been Done Before

For the past few months I have been slowly wending my way through Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge (Picador, 2017), Daniel Rachel’s oral history of the Red Wedge, Rock Against Racisim (RAR), and 2 Tone youth music and cultural movements that arose to oppose Thatcherism, nationalism, racism, and fascism in the UK of the 1970s and ’80s. Blame moves and other unpleasantries for the extra time taken to read such an engaging book. What is so wonderful and important about this book chronicling the social movement that galvanized, in part, after a racist speech Eric Clapton delivered, is that it succeeds in establishing the political power and the importance of cultural movements undertaken by ordinary, ethically motivated individuals off the street, and it also in clarifies the possibility and real efficacy such grassroots cultural movements can bring to bear on the constant struggle against fascism, nationalism, and alienation advanced by late neoliberal capitalism.

Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge by Daniel Rachel

The book follows the format famously employed by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in their oral history of New York-centric Punk, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Grove/Atlantic 1996/2016). In Rachel’s book, interviews with a pantheon of scene personages, demiurges, and provocateurs of the British Punk and social progressive scenes are edited together thematically and chronologically to tell a cohesive story, wherein a Socialist Workers Party operative’s narrative thread will be woven into the tale spun by musicians from bands like Steel Pulse or Stiff Little Fingers, then patched back into into firsthand testimony from Rock Against Racism event organizers and spearheads. In McNeil and McCain’s book, however, the political background of and impetus

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

for the American musical and cultural history that was being made by the American punk-rockers whose scene Please Kill Me chronicles only seldom manages to emerge, and then only incidentally. An example of this is Dennis Thompson’s short description of the MC5’s experience fleeing the police violence at the concert held at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago:

“When I saw all those cops, the only thing I could think was, Jesus Christ, if this is the revolution, we lost…Chicago was supposed to be a show of solidarity, goddamn it. This is the alternative culture? Come on. Where were the other bands? No one showed up but us. That’s what pissed me off. I knew the revolution was over at that moment—I looked over my shoulder, and no one else was there. We were the ones who were gonna get hanged. I said, “This is it. There ain’t no revolution. It doesn’t exist. It’s bullshit. The movement is dead”[note]Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, pp. 44-5.[/note]

And perhaps the reason that even this minor irruption of the actually political made it onto the pages of McNeil and McCain’s book is that it carried such a nihilist, even cynical tone; As filmmaker Adam Curtis points out in his film Hypernormalisation, a documentary history of our amnesiac era of neoliberalism, the portion of the American Punk scene featured in Please Kill Me is the same arts scene he critiques for embracing a radical, apolitical individualism that includes artists and hipsters such as Patti Smith admiring the decay of society as though from afar.

In contrast, despite the fact that Rachel may have availed himself of the same device for organizing and presenting the story of punk in the UK as did McNeil and McCain in their book about punk in the U.S., Rachel’s is an overtly political, socially and politically engaged, and hopeful undertaking. The weight of the verisimilitude imparted by the documentary collage style of the book isn’t used merely to give the reader a titillating thrill at being on hand as spectator to the anarchic excesses of rock ‘n roll lifestyles, but instead to clearly make the point that there was another time and place where the right wing, fueled and encouraged by the policies of neoliberalism, made a public push to normalize xenophobia, homophobia, racism, reactionary violence, and institutionally imposed inequality, and this wave was pushed back by the persevering application of simple, if staunch, humanity. It is a book that shows that the destabilization of society on the cultural and institutional levels such as we are witnessing in the United States today has happened before in Western societies within very recent living memory, and that there is the real possibility that such debasement of the public sphere can be definitively repulsed through cultural engagement. As visionary songwriter and firebrand Billy Bragg, speaking about his experience of the Anti-Nazi League/RAR-organized Victoria Park Carnival concert of April 30, 1978, puts it:

We were standing under a banner that said ‘Gays Against the Nazis’ and when Tom sang Sing if You’re Glad to be Gay, all these blokes around us started kissing each other on the lips. I’d never seen an out gay man before. My immediate thought was, ‘What are they doing here? This is about black people.’ And literally in the course of that afternoon I came to realize that actually the fascists were against anybody who was in any way different and just liking black music and being a punk rocker was sufficiently different for the National Front to be the enemy. I realized this was how my generation were going to define themselves, in opposition to discrimination of all kinds. This was our Vietnam; our Ban the Bomb. It had a very powerful effect on me.[note]Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone, and Red Wedge by Daniel Rachel, pp. 145-46.[/note]

Neoliberalism in practice is profoundly stupid. It cannot abide nuance or difference. In the neoliberal vision, society is supplanted by a brutally simplified field of self-interested competitors, all bent on maximizing their own returns. A liberal society is a technology based on the awareness and minimization of the possibility of individuals’ suffering, which is the basis of rights. Therefore, liberal societies manifest a regulatory government whose primary mission is to limit the harm that self-interested competitors and their market logic can do to real people who, unlike simple competitors, are defined by unquantifiable factors such as desires, friends, family, and the social context these provide. Neoliberalism turns the tables. Under neoliberalism, it is instead the market that regulates the newly limited realms within which government is allowed to function. Naturally, or rather unnaturally, the protective, conservationist functions of the state that formerly ensured the well-being of individuals, such as education, health care, or environmental protection, are whittled away. The market, taking all social authority unto itself, leaves open to the government only the peripheral functions separating people who are favored and those who are not— the policing, military, and penal functions. What is left of the government is all borders and punishment and the free labor that generates, with stakeholder profit on the back end. The individual with all its rights becomes an inadmissible category in public discourse,[note]As an aside, this is where the well-meaning but passive gesture of displaying yard-signs, coffee mugs, T-shirts, etc. with this slogan insisting on the existence of the category of the individual is ineffective. In the neoliberal mind, the individual already does not exist, but competition and the circulation of empty symbolism does. Aesthetic displays without mobilization do nothing to change the field that neoliberalism dictates. [/note] and the gambling competitor, the player, slave-like,[note]For more in-depth discussion on the role of anonymity and the decontextualization of individual identity in sustaining slavery, read David Graeber’s excellent Debt: The First 5,000 Years[/note] who is without identity because the neoliberal subject is absolutely anyone whoever playing a zero-sum game, is the only assumed denizen of the razed public sphere. Here the state no longer curries the favor of the governed with the classical contract to protect its citizens in exchange for legitimizing its reign, and it instead cooperates to widen social divisions. And here is where neoliberalism is actually, lacking any better word, stupid. In bypassing appeal to any type of intelligence or sensible argument, its aim is to mechanically force individuals by circumstance to become competitors through lack, fear, and suspicion. It engineers the famine that makes markets real. In a positive feedback reaction loop, the further right vested forces push discourse and policy, the further right the ever more alienated and bereft populace tends to believe it must move to survive. Mere survival forces the transformation of individuals into competitors.

Taken in this context, Daniel Rachel’s book is so very important because it does not depict a youth cultural scene obsessed with aesthetics or fashion or music alone; it does not depict the actions of political idealists, ideologues, or candidates succeeding on their merit or purity alone; it does not reduce the period and its struggles to the circumstances’ applicability to the identity just one or another alienated and disenfranchised group affected by Thatcherite, corporatist, or right-wing policies alone. It depicts a moment in living memory when several groups of concerned human beings eschewed the reduction of their own politics to aesthetic competition amongst themselves, and instead worked together in the common cause of humanity to reject the right-wing attempt to dismantle culture. They did this with the gravitas and common cause of an anti-reductionist ethical social context behind them. They did this by clearly articulating their unifying principles at all of their events, by organizing politically, by fielding candidates, by demonstrating, and by organizing to protect one another when the very real physical threats from the right were imminent. The fascist, neoliberal right, after all, adheres to the letter of market stupidity, and admits no nuance. In such a reductionist view of society, wherein there is only one acceptable interpretation of reality, everything is flattened and made aesthetic, competitive, and material. To zealots of reductionist competition whose worldview is limited to the existence of ruthlessly self-interested actors alone, all perceived threats, whether conceptual, rhetorical, or physical, are categorically identical. There is no room for empathy or understanding when, like those on the right, you stand on sides. However you relate, haters are only gonna hate.

Although Walls Come Tumbling Down is, in part, about the fun of music and rock stars and youth joyfully coming together, at this frightening moment in U.S. history, saturated with police violence, an atmosphere of militarism that spawns a gun and policing culture that is out of control, and emboldened fascist elements, this book gives readers more than a playful romp through a bygone hipster scene of detached and politically demobilized cool. This is not a portrait of outsiders in competition for the crown of alterity. The thorough picture of the political climate it instead provides does even more than provide mere hope for our troubled times. It provides a blueprint on which, once again, a solidarity can be built to push back on the awful state of American politics and society today. It must be done, and, importantly, it can be done. After all, as Daniel Rachel has so rousingly and meticulously illustrated in Walls Come Tumbling Down, it has been done before.

On Seeing The Babadook

I finally rented Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, a lean, masterful synthesis of seminal psychological horror films The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) and Repulsion (Polanski, 1965).  From The Shining, Kent adapts the parent-as-monster and boy visionary.  From Repulsion, she takes the isolated woman disturbed by sexuality, and the victim who, when her pain can’t be shared, succumbs to adopting the ultimately self-destructive perception of herself from the point of view of others.  The hypnagogic imagery depicts a woman dissociated from herself and the passage of time, keeping the viewer constantly on the fence: is this a story of the supernatural, or are we simply seeing the world through the protagonist’s psychosis?

The film leans heavily in the direction of a creatively-told psychological tale of a combination of Munchausen-by-proxy, unresolved grief, misplaced survivor’s guilt, and resentment, denuding much of the more visually spectacular horror scenes of their typical horror-genre immediacy.  In this way, the most anxiety-inducing moments of the film direct viewers not to their own sense of self-preservation, nor to fear of the unknown as represented by the possibility of an actual embodiment of supernatural evil, but instead towards a mother’s concerns: the well-being of others, here the mother, Amelia, in particular, the adequacy of our protagonist’s parenting, and the well-being of “the boy”, Sam.  This is a horror film of compassion, a film whose top concern is not self-preservation-by-proxy, but, remarkably, compassion for others.  This is the particular genius of Kent’s film.  Her storytelling makes the obvious, terrific, bone-chilling imagery secondary, subtle, and allows the human concerns behind our fears to take the center stage.

The Long Tail and Endless Flattery

In which this reviewer frolics in the used CD bin and reflects on the ambivalent nature of Pop memory

A “wise” algorithmically generated amalgamation of message board users once said, “The Internet never forgets.”  While that is superficially true, it would be more accurate to say that, abetted by the vast semi-organized troves of music and obscure band trivia music nerds have put on the Internet, music nerds never forget.  One of these music nerds is musician Alexis Georgopoulos, AKA Arp.  In 2013, Arp released the very ENO-esque More, a tiny stadium of simple, high-contrast glam outfitted with warm jets galore.  Today, while slowly perusing the used CD bin, I found an earlier Arp opus, the 2007 release In Light.  While I couldn’t help be touched by the faithfulness of his full appropriation of ENOisms on 2013’s More, I was struck on first listen to In Light by his apparent love for ENO collaborators and inspirational source Harmonia, in particular for their 1975 album, DeLuxe.

Oh, Arp, shall I compare thee to a summer’s eve?

51lfYaMZ2bL._SX300_ Harmonia: DeLuxe

Let’s begin our comparison with the names of these records.  Michael Rother, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius’ band Harmonia’s 1975 record’s title, DeLuxe, means “of the light.”  Arp’s 2007 release, In Light means, well, just that.  Harmonia’s original work came from the light, the source of inspiration, and Arp’s record was made by in the light cast by its predecessor.

Arp’s cover art has a certain undeniable, warm similarity to Harmonia’s, which carries the metaphor further.  The cover image of Arp’s 2007 album, by then already far from 1975, is more distant in obvious visual proximity from the source.  Here the reduction in the camera’s proximity to the sun does not reduce the similarity to the subject matter, however; in spite of the drifting, obscuring, amnesiac clouds, the parity of the image’s composition with the timing (further away in time and more obscure) only increases the level of homage.  Less is more.

The content (that hated word) of the record lacks an exact analog to the signature Rother guitar, but, if one is looking, a suitable one can be found in the steady saw-wave buzz that drones on the second track, “Potentialities”, or on the fourth, “Fireflies on the Water”, or opening the fifth, “Premonition of the Sculptor Steiner”.  In fact, the sound on the fourth may even be a guitar.  Even without a guitar, which we know Georgopolous will get to along with vocals on More, the songs all bear an unmistakable resemblance to the spare synthesized rhythm and repetition of the works of Moebius and Roedelius.  The use of a muted, pastel pallet of analog arpeggios and LFO-modulated, watery pads throughout Arp’s In Light hearkens back to Harmonia’s “Kekse”, “Notre Dame”, “Gollum”, or “Walky-Talky”, the less driving 3/4 of the earlier masterpiece.

Momus recently mused whether anyone was talking any longer about originality. In a summation of an earlier survey he had conducted, he states “critics in music and art mags prefer to talk about influences and reference and context.”  This question of originality in conjunction with or in opposition to creativity is very interesting to me, a person raised in the waning, pre-Internet years of the American Monomyth, my brain antiseptically washed squeaky clean in the Superman-iacal ideal of the One who would change All, in spite of the fact that, even then, everyone knew no one could ever come along and be the Beatles again.  The Alphas were out.  Onward to the age of the Alpha/Omegas- the Guns ‘n Roses of the world- the bands that would, at the very same time they finalized the form they embodied, kill it with their perfection.

Now, with the availability of cheap storage, streaming music, and endless, unpaid music journalism, we seem to have entered a Pax Romana of pop culture.  The illusion of an endless swathe of time seems to extend ahead and behind in Western culture in which our trivia, our selves, continued, continues, will continue, and will have continued to make sense.

In reality, Pop music by its nature lacks permanence.  Pop music appears before its intended audience at the time when they will hear it, and it leaves that audience’s consciousness nearly as soon as that moment as passed.  Unless you are a completist, it requires no effort to unearth.  It is apparently omnipresent, and as undemanding of examination as most people’s unexamined lives, lit intermittently  as they are by the strobe of changing fancy.  Like politics, Pop comes and goes and is drowned in the waters of Lethe nearly as quickly as it gains its audience share.

For the completist, however, this is not the case. The Internet needs the completist far more than the completist needs the Internet- for it is the true rock nerd and his narratives who keeps the cobwebs on all that rock obscura (placed there by those same rock nerds or ones like them) at (e-)bay.  It is the completist, obsessed with the human continuity of any cultural form, who saves us from our woefully short memories.  This was true in the past, and it’s especially true now in the age of the Internet, with all that cluster of media forms’ distracting, rapid-fire arguments aimed to cut us off from whence we came.

It is this present environment that makes an artist like Arp so interesting.  The Long Tail means that, for the completist, the archival Pop reference becomes at once a blatant strategy for remembering, for organizing a history, and a form of expression.  If culture appears to have been on a steady course lo these many years, and all that work that composes that history is still available to tap into and compare oneself to, why wouldn’t Pop in some way formalize itself to remember itself?

Another act that comes to mind when considering this question is recently reviewed, Sub Pop-signed His Electro Blue Voice.  With their music they make references to The Pixies, Ministry, and Weezer in addition to their more obscure prog touchpoints.  Pop is an amateur form, and these references are up to thirty years old.  Why shouldn’t they be available to be used as an artist wishes if, as in any amateur form, one must imitate them to learn the temporary laws of genre?  Why should we be surprised to see them here again?  I prize originality, but I fear its illusion more.  A stress on continuity signals  a knowledge of history, something our always-accelerating media has been trying to divest us of since the inception of print.  If reference and derivation means, on some level, the triumph of history, I will revel in the stylistic reference.  It is never reviled among filmmakers.  Why should it be so in the case of musicians who respect their teachers?  The crucial element is, of course, this respect on the artist’s part for the innovation in a prior work, a prior work that is understood by the current artist.  This is what separates hackneyed derivation or kitsch from homage, and it allows for new beginnings, for audiences to connect to the same expanding pool of vetted reference points.  This is the condition in which originality can come into interplay with hagiography and survive.

The most tragic and sobering aspect of Pop is its veiled allusion to death.  Warhol knew this.  Pop is here today, and tomorrow its audience will have moved on, more concerned with making sure they can pay for their kids’ college tuition than with engaging in the romantic fantasies tied up in a night out.  Most serious Pop acts lose their audiences to maturation and the unexamined life, or become entwined in more banal concerns themselves.  Astute readers of Pop forms should appreciate when new acts flatter those masters they came across in record bins, through recommendations, and via RSS feeds with imitation that doesn’t become kitsch.  It is good when audiences can be taken along on an artist’s path of discovery, when they are allowed to follow the curved lines of a human dawning of context, culture, and music while more deeply forming their own.

A final aside on homage will end this post.  As I sat writing this, I listened all the way through another used find, The Album Leaf’s 2001 EP In an Off-White Room.  On the final track, on the far shore of a river of twenty minutes or more of ambient room noise, there is a fantastic cover of the English language version of Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love.”  Michael Rother of Harmonia and NEU! was briefly a member of Kraftwerk in an early incarnation of that band.  It’s hard to call it serendipity when everything is just so connected.

In Which the Author Hears HIS BLUE ELECTRO VOICE

Sub Pop put out the debut LP from obscure Italian  psych/noise/shoegaze/krautrock/garage punk outfit His Electro Blue Voice in the closing months of 2013, horrifically entitled Ruthless Sperm.  I came to hear it in a roundabout way that, as it so often does, involved Indie fountainhead and local/global radio station KEXP.  A friend heard it tucked amongst other driving gems on in one of the more punk-formatted specialty shows, was provoked to investigate them further, then passed the recommendation on to our small cadre of 1337 man-child indie-rock snobs.  Because I am possessed of the handicap of being unable to listen to music as though it is an entirely new experience, I was immediately compelled to make the following comparison: “Holy shit, this sounds like someone played Weezer’s “Surf Wax America.” over the top of Ministry’s “Thieves”!

At first listen you might be compelled to make similar juxtapositions of seemingly disparate acts and genres in your description of what you’re hearing.  They’re probably all dead-on.  The exciting thing, though, is that they don’t stay right.  Everyone has influences, but those are only a common ground, a shared grammar on which new statements can be built.  In true Bakhtinian fashion, subsequent listens to their catalog yield new combinations, new music, transitions from driving simplicity to synthesizer-accompanied stretches of minimal Psych, new impressions at play with your expectations.  I hope Sub Pop manages to bring these guys stateside so we can see them live.

Into the Not-So-Wayback Machine- Listening to Centaur’s “In Streams” (2002) in 2014


As much as the Internet lends itself to giving its users a false sense of its all-encompassing immensity, so does the momentary nature of youth lend a false sense of universality to our impressions.  In my early- to mid-twenties I was very, very into the laid-back urgency of HUM’s spaced-out psychedelic metal, all brilliant production, intricate layering of delicate sounds, and heavy, heavy guitar riffs.  When that band broke up and frontman Matt Talbot  released what would end up being the only record by his new band, Centaur, I was ravenous for something even harder, more all-encompassing and urgent than what even the nearly perfect HUM catalog had to offer.  I wanted another HUM record that I would react to just as intensely as I had to all the ones that came before.  The problem, of course, is that when you first hear the music you wind up loving, you love it precisely because you have built up no expectations, you have no defenses against the truly new thing that you are about to hear.  Expectations are defense mechanisms that, interestingly, actually seem to “protect” you from exactly the pleasant experiences that you are hoping to repeat. (I defense of expectations, I still get a little teary-eyed when I think of how beautiful it sounded to hear HUM project a shimmering wall of space out over Lake Michigan from the Death Star-sized sound system on the stage at Chicago’s Millenium Park; who wouldn’t want to repeat that experience?)

On this past weekend’s birthday record store raid I came across a copy of Centaur’s In Streams, so I bought it.

Pro tip: Even in the age of the Internet, even in the age of mechanical reproduction, the availability of art is finite.  If you see an old, rare, out-of-print record you know is “important” to you, just buy it.  You may never find it again.

On this listen, on my birthday and 12 years after its release, I was particularly attentive to the differences in my impressions, and to the details of the record’s production.  Many recognizably “HUM” flourishes were there, from Talbot’s use of a pretty, undistorted guitar, to beds of long feedback, and, yes, occasional walls of hairy, distorted lead guitar.  What leapt out at me, however, impressing me on this listen but leaving my younger self cold, was the extremely deliberate use of restraint throughout.  All the ingredients of a Hum record were there, but, at every single point when Talbot could drop the wall of sound on you, he pulls back.  Nothing is gratuitous, nothing is overused.  The songs are marked by their expansiveness, their space, their ragga-like quietude, rather than by force and urgency.  The songs take their time, and the joy-buzzer distorted wall of sound is always shut down as soon as it can be.  Seeming to be an extension of where HUM was going on the orphan single “Aphids”, this is an overlooked masterpiece, a picture of the genius Talbot at the very top of his craft and fully aware of the power of the techniques he pioneered.  He was a master that had ascended faster , unfortunately, than his late-adolescent boys-club of fans, still limited by their own aggressive expectations, could.  I’m grateful for record stores, long Saturdays, and the serendipity that the two of those combined engender for reuniting a more able listener with a record he had failed so miserably in the past.


The COERCEYOU Best of 2013 List

Here we are, having slid down the icy gullet of December, swallowed now and again in cold snaps and polar vortices that seem so sudden, but whose inexorable arrival has advertised itself daily these 365 days of 2013 during which we’ve been listening to pop records instead of making hay. 本当に時間が飛ぶね。

Here is my yearly contribution of lines of code to the internet-clogging social-engineering computer virus that is the year-end best-of list.  It’s my unique and special drop in the infinitely redundant server farm heat-sink we once called “the blogosphere.”  Anyhow, here’s the drill: These are not necessarily exclusively records that came out this year, but they are records that came under my loving scrutiny this year.

Black Moth Super Rainbow Cobra Juicy (2012)

Sometimes the genius of things your are resistant to seek you out and find you at those odd hours when you’re most susceptible.  BMSR emerged in the yinzer metropole a few years ago like a furrier from the backwoods to trade heavy, reverb and delay saturated psychedelia along the Schuylkill.  I love few things more than the sound of close, warmly overdriven synthesizers being allowed to ring out, but the first couple records were just too heavy, too repetitive for my tastes.  Hearing it on KEXP or in the coffee shop now and again was enough for me.  Then, not long ago, I was driving very early in the pitch-black morning with the radio on when the brilliantly sleazy “Hairspray Heart” came on by request.  Inside the destroyed cacophony of filtered noise and overdriven guitar samples was the confidently delicate restraint of a brilliant pop song.  As brazenly sexual and materialistic as anything Madonna did in her early career, the vocals are delivered from behind a thick, velvety, vocoded curtain, crooning about control and absolute reciprocal commodification as though by Glenn Danzig at a Material Girl drag burlesque held in the Black Lodge.  Who knew that’s exactly what the video would be getting at.  The mysterious frontman of Black Moth Super Rainbow, a man who goes by the nom de guerre Tobacco, has cultivated something of an Aphex Twin persona with the creepy BMSR grinning skull mask that adorns record sleeves and covers the faces of most people in his videos.  Even though it’s been done before, Tobacco is an artist who manages to do something his pop-savvy quick-study contemporaries can’t anymore- he manages to be dangerous, and he does so while delivering the most careful, the most Pop record of his career.

Demon Queen S/T (2013)

I posted about this very recently.  More Tobacco.  More signs of life from a dying, desert-colored and grey-green sphere.

Translator Collection (2007)

I picked up the Translator debut LP, Heartbeats and Triggers (1982), for $0.30 from a bargain bin set on the street outside my local record store.  My New Wave heuristics picked up on the vibe on the vinyl by way of the surprisingly well-preserved cardboard sleeve without the need for a needle.  I took it home, amplified it, and my ears just NECKED it.  Translator’s original 415 records catalog was reissued by Wounded Bird Records in 2007, but they’ve been out of print since, and the individual discs can be on the pricier end at your local record shop.  Luckily, Acadia, an in-label-group imprint of Evangeline records, issued a nearly completely comprehensive two-CD collection of their work the same year that reproduces the debut, Heartbeats and Triggers and the follow-up No Time Like Now (1983) in their entirety, while including B-sides and highlights from Translator (1985) and Evening of the Harvest (1986).  Taken as a whole, it’s a self-contained history of the New Wave on its fringes, a Pandora’s box of proleptic hints presaging everything from late eighties clean Brit Pop guitar to Nirvana nineties grunge to the oughts’ Interpol-led indie revival.  I still can’t believe I never heard of them until this year.  It’s like a group of bodhisattvas secretly unscrewing the dependent world with skillful means and guitar strings.

Bottomless Pit Shade Perennial (2013)

These guys do no wrong.






Annie A&R EP  (2013)

With the kids bringing the nineties revival back into full swing (albeit usually the wrong parts of the nineties- those parts with the high pants sucked, guys), it seems fitting to come back the oughts’ one time almost-darling of dance, Annie.  It was 2005, and dance Pop was just becoming OK for the indie kids to listen to.  Enter Annie Berge-Strand, descending on New York’s newly opened Tribeca Grand for a free US debut show right around the same time that Bloc Party first crossed the pond.  Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” was still playing in every bar in town.  Annie’s debut record with producer Richard X is lauded by Pitchfork.  And then… and then… And then everyone starts listening to Robyn.

Annie’s work with Richard X has always been her strongest, and this 2013 EP with the producer is as knowingly nostalgic as it is deliciously Pop.  Annie has never seemed particularly comfortable on video with choreographed dance and cookie-cutter, meaningless youthful exuberance, and it hasn’t worked when she’s tried it on.  There’s a certain endearing shyness and awkwardness to her persona, something that seems genuine, that might be too subtle for Pop audiences trained to experience push-button ecstasy to access.  Maybe that’s why Robyn’s rise seemed to coincide with Annie’s fade from the web’s bullshit circulating machine.  Annie makes dance music whose stories have a background and a future, something you carry with you.  So I wonder, smiling along to “Ralph Macchio”, whether anyone but us late Seventies kids know who she’s talking about, whether the audiences of today can even comprehend what they’re missing when they forego a sentimental education for algorithmically generated 3-minute shocks to the vagus nerve.  This is just good pop.


The Go-Betweens Before Hollywood (1983)

I have been a Go-Betweens fan for some time now, but I had never heard this early record containing their breakout single “Cattle and Cane”, a rumination on memory and nostalgia.  A friend had passed me a MOJO Magazine compilation of Manchester scene-era music entitled There is a Light that Never Goes Out: Indie Classics 1982-1987, a sort of contextualizing exercise with The Smiths occupying the lacuna at its center to give the uninitiated a glimpse at what was going on at the time The Smiths managed to get so big.  Those purveyors of mopey bombast provide a good foil for considering the chronically underrated Go-Betweens and their subtle and angular cast of pop in contrast.

Not available on Spotify, I got hold of the 2002 2-disc reissue of this deeply emotional masterpiece.  It’s less immediately accessible than their late-era work, for which hit-it-big TV themers The Rembrandts have reason to be so grateful (an obvious example of which being the Ivy-covered “Streets of your Town”).  Its sparseness and breathy atmosphere open a tender and naked space filled with now honest and doleful emotion, now with staccato cacophony.  The lament of “Dusty in Here”, a mock dialog between the ghost of someone lost and someone left behind about the father that Grant McLennan lost as a child, moves from denial to acceptance, but the line “Twenty years, and six feet down, I’m told, I know your face, I share your name” could just as easily have been penned by his bandmate Robert Forster about McLennan’s own demise, coming as it did quite suddenly in 2006, about 20 years (23, to be precise) after this song was written.

The way these spare arrangements burst suddenly into torrents of lyrical poetry, like when the moans of the title track (“make me last!”) burst into the soaring chorus about the development of the monolithic cinematic propaganda machine of Hollywood (“In the New West/The orange groves/Grow like a plague/Wherever you go/I told the Heads /We’ll show the World/We’ll film ourselves in history and chrome”), it’s like a drowning rush from a cloudburst, a biblical flood washing away the hapless everyman who doesn’t stand a chance before the power of so much truth.

Roomrunner Ideal Cities (2013)

I like what these guys are doing, and I think it’s fine to sound derivative of beloved bands.  People peg them as sounding like Nirvana, but I hear a lot of Hum.  In spite of that, people still like them.  And for good reason- they fucking rock.  Their recent album, Ideal Cities, features a picture of a panoptic city/prison on it.  I love it when my indie rock is served up to me on a big Foucaldian platter.  I hear it, but it hears ME, too.  The whole Roomrunner catalog is free on their page for awhile.  Get acquainted.


Survival Knife Traces of Me EP, Divine Mob EP

What if Rush got hold of a time machine and went ahead in time with the sole mission of being the Unwound of the future?  This.


ARP More (2013)

Do you like Glammy 1970’s Brian Eno?  So does ARP.  So do I.


Atom™ Pop HD

I don’t think there is anything more I can say about this deeply intellectual and highly technical electronic record than I already said here.

Momus Tender Pervert (1988)

“He draws the angels close to watch that slut the world get hers.  God’s a tender pervert, and the angels… the angels are voyeurs.”

Momus is relentless, and he’s probably smarter than you.  Just listen.  His Creation catalog is available at Ubuweb.

Múromuk Museum EP

Don’t know much about this guy, but I like his record.

Weed Deserve

First the Japandroids, now this.  How did Vancouver, B.C. start producing all this midwestern emo?

Daft Punk Random Access Memories

It’s the guys who made sure everyone knows that there is an old guy named Giorgio Moroder for about five minutes or so.


Boards of Canada Tomorrow’s Harvest

Consistently weird and unsettling.  Bravo, guys!

Demon Queen: Exorcise Tape

When I listen to Tobacco’s work, I’m taken back to the retro-dangerous world of Beck’s Midnite Vultures (1999), with the difference being that Tobacco’s weird forays into plastic-wrapped synthy drug-shimmer and hopeless mall bravado don’t arrive laden with Beck’s by the late nineties well-established reassuring mainstream stardom.  Tobacco remains an unknown quanitity, forever masked with the obscene grin of the BMSR, a fringe character hovering somewhere in the collective unconscious between Jason Voorhees and Aphex Twin.  Where Aphex Twin managed to disappear and make us accept his own face as an uncanny mask, we are forced to wonder whether, in Tobacco’s case, there is anything at all behind the mask we are given in lieu of a face.

On 2013’s Demon Queen: Exorcise Tape, Tobacco’s team up with Tucson rappers Zackey Force Funk and his cohort repositions the messily quantized machine funk of Grandmaster Flash back into the desperate places whence it came.  That sounds to me a lot like the goal of industrial music- to stick your neck out far enough to just touch the void that pop culture was built up to blind us from seeing.  My favorite track from this record is streaming from Soundcloud above, a ditty about a party gone wrong reminiscent of Anti-Pop Consortium’s “Tragic Epilogue”, locating the constant threat of desperate living’s violence shoulder-to-shoulder with escapist weekend dreams.

Chaos, chaos, buzzsaw, joy.

Dear readers,

I am writing to you about an exciting opportunity to listen to the HOTTEST new music in the UNIVERSE.  I am happy to say that I can WHOLEHEARTEDLY without ANY RESERVATIONS recommend to you the music of a peppy Baltimore ensemble performing under the name THE ROOMRUNNER.  Without a doubt, PUMMELING YOUR TINY COCHLEAS with their THERAPEUTIC THUNDERING will TEACH YOUR FUCKING HAIR CELLS WHO’S THE BOSS.  I know, because I once LISTENED TO AN ENTIRE DIGITAL UNDERGROUND CASSETTE TAPE with TONY DANZA.

FRIENDS, you may have wondered, “How many different ways in space can the SPIKES ON A BALL OF NOISE PROTRUDE AT ONCE?”  I have been to the mountain, I have rinsed my mouth with all the brands, I have WATCHED THE WRATH OF KHAN with nothing more than socks on my hands and the power of my AUGMENTED MEMORY.


Did you know that the panopticon is a machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces HOMOGENEOUS EFFECTS OF POWER?

Please enjoy Roomrunner.

Deerhunter: Monomania

Deehunter’s Monomania will be released May 7, 2013 but, as part of a trend that is making me feel like all my tastes are completely outdated, NPR has it available to stream and listen to online in its “First Listen” section now.

Deerhunter’s last record, Halcyon Digest, is now three years old.  It was a remarkable record, but it’s sound was marked by the fact that, at the time of its release, the two creative poles in the band were clarifying the sound of their respective solo projects.  Lockett Pundt’s Lotus Plaza and Bradford Cox’ Atlas Sound were each to drop definitive records in the wake of Halcyon Digest.  Hearing Lotus Plaza’s Spooky Action at a Distance and Atlas Sound’s Parallax made it seem as though Halcyon Digest were more a collaboration of two side projects than the internally consistent output of one band.  Cox was (monomaniacally?) fixated on the use of looping pedals, and songs like “Fountain Stairs” found their long-form perfection over the course of Pundt’s Spooky Action.

It’s good when a band can mix things up and change expectations, and few groups can pull this off.  Deerhunter did on Halcyon Digest, but gone was the sock-hop gone freakout bad vibe that infused Cryptograms and Microcastle/Weird Era Continued.  Monomania, then,  is a return to form.  Perhaps the record’s title is to some degree a tongue-in-cheek nod to this need to home back in to the familiarity of the band’s screaming swirl of noise, and to those influences that seem to be displayed so ostentatiously on these new songs.  Never had Deerhunter’s debt to the Pixies and Breeders seemed so apparent to this reviewer than on “Dream Captain”, and is it possible that “Leather Jacket II” carries the lipstick traces of Garbage?  The title track has that by-now-trademarked pounding, repetitive feature, be it bridge, chorus, or solo, that marks so many of the most signature Deerhunter tunes (“Nothing Ever Happened”, “Memory Boy” are two good examples) reduced to the barest minimum of performance time.  Indeed, if anyone has seen the band perform “Nothing Ever Happened” more than once over the past several years, they have surely been left with the impression that the band is both playing the song through as quickly as possible out of annoyance over having produced a “hit” that can so readily pigeonhole them for fans and to somehow imbue it with more power, to concentrate the power of that song into a single grammatical flourish.  “Monomania”, the title song, leans more in this latter direction, seemingly only slipping between the open spaces of the verses in order to rage back into the fuzzed-out canyons of sound in the chorus.  There’s also what sounds like the recording of a motorbike engine all over the last half of the song.  That’s pretty cool.

Here you go, all you lost your edge indie rock types.  Deerhunter’s new record on NPR.