For my first LP review over at The Glow, I wrote about a record that will — in five years time, say — encapsulate my 2013 maybe more than any other, as much as an Individual Human Person as a music writer. I’d written on Twitter, my preferred method of communication with the human race, that the album contained all of the year’s emotional palate for me. But, that’s not true — there has been a lot of love and joy in 2013, too, whatever the complications. Those feelings don’t make much of an appearance on this album, but they’re around.
I just moved from the Washington, DC, area, where I’ve lived for the better part of a decade. I’ll be heading to Brooklyn in August, but first I’m spending a month in my small Southern hometown. I can’t think about Washington without thinking about the small city’s outsized contribution to independent music, and since Brooklyn’s Bands are Everyone’s Bands in a way that seems very removed from DC’s serious hometown pride, I made myself a li’l YouTube playlist here of just a few of my favs from DC and the ‘burbs.
HELLO, I am feeling maximum levels of human excitement to announce I’ve joined the staff of my favorite ever Music Writing Place, Cokemachineglow. I wrote about Deafheaven for my first piece to fulfill my contractual obligation to use the phrase “Norwegian hellscape” in every review.
Marone, I’m sad about James Gandolfini’s death. I know Gandolfini did some of the most judicious and layered performances in most any project he participated in, whether you’re talking True Romance or In the Loop. He brought such palpable depth to roles in otherwise lesser films, too, like Killing Them Softly and Where the Wild Things Are. But yeah, he was Tony Soprano, and Tony Soprano is the best character in the best narrative of contemporary American fiction. (And while we’re on it, for the evening, fuck The Wire. Relatedly: fuck art that tells you exactly what to think and suffuses itself with a false sense of moral superiority. It’s not in the same room as The Sopranos, though it makes its audience feel smarter than The Sopranos does.)
I could go on about the show, and about Gandolfini’s performance in it. But I’ll say this for now: it’s the most realistic portrait of depression I’ve ever found in any art form, period. Apologies to Hemingway and DFW (and Goethe, and Camus, and Woolf, and — ). BIG apologies to Zach Braff, of course. David Chase and his writers put it in front of Gandolfini, sure, but he brought an understanding and an almost impossible intuition of the disease’s rhythms to 86 hours of performance. It’s a comfort, really, and it’ll be here forever. Salud.
“I don’t like this expression ‘First World problems.’ It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country. People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations. Here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.”—
When I think of Zola Jesus, I can’t help but think of Lady Gaga. The two have a fair amount in common, beyond having wonderfully interesting bone structure: they are singers, rather than vocalists, possessing (or possessed by) truly killer pipes; they came to pop music through the unusual conduit of classical forms (Gaga is a classically trained pianist, Zola Jesus a former opera singer); they both enjoy covering themselves in unusual substances. But only one of these women really pushes pop music into strange, often uncomfortable places.
The accepted line on Gaga has become one of Stefanie Germanotta’s role as provocateur, an experimentalist who somehow managed to upset conventions and become a true pop sensation. And I suppose I could accept that as true, if I only paid attention to Gaga’s media presence, the photographic evidence of her predilections toward angular hats on the runway, her appealingly surreal set pieces (she once wrote a thesis on Damien Hirst, after all). But, and the secret’s not really a secret, Gaga’s avant-garde spirit presents itself in her music—where? I suppose the wordless chorus of “Bad Romance” might, unbeknownst to me, have its roots in a little-studied Esperanto dialect, but I doubt it.
And I’m a fan of Mother Monster. In fact, I like her most when she’s at her least contrived. “Just Dance,” her breakout track and one indistinguishable from its brethren in the Euro-pop trend muscling its way across the airwaves these last several years, is still my favorite of her songs. I couldn’t say whether Nika Danilova, when she’s writing as Zola Jesus, thinks of Lady Gaga. If I were her, I’d at least feel a twinge of resentment, mixed with love, like a sister jealous of another sister's greater success. Gaga, for mainstream audiences, occupies the rightful place of Zola Jesus, the latter a songwriter who actually makes something challenging—but still vital—out of her acquaintance with industrial music and new wave. Pop music doesn't need to have anything of the avant-garde in it at all, but when it does, it's pretty damned interesting.
I didn’t feel quite as strongly about this comparison until I finally saw Zola Jesus live this week, at Washington, DC’s wonderfully forward-thinking, electro-minded U Street Music Hall. Onstage, Zola Jesus sounds more human than she does on record, her voice still just as technically impressive but less chilly, less remote. And, you know, she can work the dance floor. This latter talent, something I wasn’t necessarily expecting from Danilova as a live performer, made me finally think of her more as a pop star than some sort of indie chanteuse, recording in her bedroom for a acceptably limited audience. Zola Jesus seems born for a stage as big as they come. Whether or not a mainstream audience will accept angularity in their pop singers when it comes in the form of music rather than headwear is another question, entirely.
Writing is lonely. At the end of the day, it’s just you and your inexorable desire to make somehow concrete the ineffable and inexpressible. Everyone with a creative mind knows what I mean. These guys, for instance. Such pain, such poise.
Hello Sadness had the misfortune of a release date right in the middle of the internet’s cyclonic Best-of-2011 maelstrom. (At PopMatters, we’d already submitted our ballots by the time the album dropped — the same day, by the way, that Drake’s Take Care saw physical release. So, neither record made the year-end list, which I think is as embarrassing as spraying milk out of your nostrils at the lunch table in 5th grade.) In a backward sort of way, though, that omission makes sense for Los Campesinos!. Not because the band doesn’t deserve the recognition — they’re one of the most consistent acts of the last five years, and Hello Sadness is their best work yet — but because they’re a group of outsiders in the indie scene, anyway.
Other writers have already noted LC!’s guitar-driven, hyper-emotive pop isn’t exactly fashionable in 2012, and I suppose that’s true. I’d be embarrassed to be caught singing a line like, “I christen all the ships that sail / On your little kisses’ saliva trails,” in front of certain friends of mine. But Hello Sadness the record, and its strongest moment, “Hello Sadness” the song, give me the kind of rush that has been increasingly hard to chase down since I was 16. And it doesn’t do so in the kind of purely guilty pleasure, ironic way all those Vagrant Records bands on my iPod do. It’s Gareth Campesinos!’s famously sharp self-deprecation that saves his band from becoming the self-serious, adolescent dreck of the Jared Leto variety. Somebody photoshop Gareth into Fight Club, instead. (No, he doesn’t deserve that. Fight Club is the worst, you guys.)