Here’s to another year of sporadic posting!
Nobody Actually Wants a Fucking Martyr: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra’s Theatre Is Evil Reviewed
Amanda Palmer hasn’t released a proper full-length studio album since Who Killed Amanda Palmer in 2008. Since then she has left her former record label, Roadrunner Records, released albums of cover versions of Radiohead and Velvet Underground songs, comprised one half of conjoined twin singing sisters Evelyn Evelyn, released a corresponding album and book to go along with the Evelyn Evelyn project, formed a new Melbourne-based band called the Grand Theft Orchestra whose name was coined via twitter crowdsourcing, made a bunch of new enemy/critics due to crowdsourcing musician/fans for her current tour who weren’t initially to be remunerated with anything other than “hugs, beer, and merch”, released a combination studio/live album with an Antipodean theme which was inspired by a tour and much time spent in Australia and New Zealand, reneged on her decision to not pay her crowdsourced bandmembers, and likely made several times as many fans as enemies due to her positivity and generosity and enthusiasm and high rate of output and fucking incredible work ethic. Maybe that’s why it took so long for me to write this review. She did all those things and I got mildly tired writing this paragraph. She kind of exhausts me.
What is definitely clear in all of this is that not being on a proper record label suits Amanda Fucking Palmer. It suits her very well. Despite the fact that Who Killed Amanda Palmer was one of my favourite releases of 2008 and that I like it better than her output with The Dresden Dolls, she has blown that record out of the water with Theatre Is Evil*. The people who talk about Palmer becoming more famous for funding her album through Kickstarter than for the album itself don’t seem to have taken a very close listen to it. I mean, the Kickstarter experiment was spectacular. If you haven’t seen the video she posted in order to promote Theatre Is Evil and gain backers, please take a look at it below. Palmer is absolutely at the forefront of selling independent, interesting music and art in a post-music business world. She believes in digital files to be shared as widely and freely as possible, she promotes beautiful and collectible physical copies and art objects as supplementary to the music, and she uses the internet to actually engage with her fans and get a sense of what that market wants. She is now doing precisely what it is she wants to do in both artistic and business senses and succeeding wildly at both. Of course, we are here for the music first and foremost, so let’s get to that…
Cabaret performer Meow Meow introduces the whole shebang, with a grainy, practically sepia-tinted flourish auf Deutsch, of course. “Smile” is immediately distorted and maximalist and sounds very much like it was made on the cusp of the 1990s. Not just an invitation to enter the world of Theatre Is Evil, “Smile” acts like an eddy into which the listener is pulled. It’s magnetic. Also it’s about partying and living in the moment and just living. It captures the paranoia of being stoned and worried about the end of the world which could maybe happen at any time and the magic of being alive at the same time as other people who are alive and being alive together. It is smeared and distorted and swollen.
If we’re going to continue to talk in years and decades and nostalgia which I think maybe we will, “The Killing Type” is the new wave of 1979 done AFP style. A personal treatise on what a person who’s “not the killing type” would kill for, it was released as a single on Theatre Is Evil with an accompanying video a couple months back that crystallises the kinds of passion that can quickly turn violent. Likewise, the self-aware control of the song’s beginning gradually gives way to angry aggression and complete loss of control. “I just can’t explain how good it feels” is overlaid with “die die die die die” while a short burst of machine gun noise signals the end and climax of the song. “Do It With a Rockstar” picks up in the same violent vein. Pianos crash, drums and guitars squelch, and voices echo as Palmer contrasts the supposed glamour of being a “rock star” with the reality that is so much more boredom and loneliness than dancing, drinking, and making out.
“Want It Back” is Theatre Is Evil’s first single, released way back in spring, and it’s one of Palmer’s best songs to date. She has said that it’s about the expiration date on a relationship and how it would be nice to rewind and re-experience the best parts of that relationship again, but the joy of this song is its walls of words and the way they tumble and conjoin and roll around with the bouncing, jubilant piano. Again, the video clip for “Want It Back” is a perfect visual expression of this, with inky animated words scrawling themselves all over Palmer’s body to form curlicues that migrate to the band and then outside the house she’s in, decorating red bricks and pipes before returning to her body and to bed.
“Grown Man Cry” may be the only song here that’s of a lesser calibre, but it nonetheless has something to say. It’s a criticism of fake sensitive dudes that are only really trying to get laid, and while musically it’s a good song, the subject matter is perhaps a little juvenile for my taste. This is potentially because this song reminds me strongly of an old article from Bust magazine that maligned said dudes and coined the term ‘wimpster’ to describe them and their whiny, ultimately vacuous attempts at feminist sensitivity. It’s not an irrelevant or even unnecessary topic, but it feels slightly beneath Palmer to approach it in this literal way. “Trout Heart Replica” is another song that other people seem to like more than I do. It’s again on the literal and sentimental side for me, but the whirlpools of piano that accompany the verses are lovely. Accented with claustrophobically close string lines and Palmer’s raw voice, shifting less than seamlessly between registers and ranges, the music to me is more triumphant than the words.
“Lost” is loud, jumpy, rhythmic, and textured, with stabbing piano knives, occasionally shifting into beautiful harmonies that never last for more than a few bars. Its delivery is joyful, though primal and brutal, and it promotes a more nuanced reading of the lyrics, which are about moving on with life after losing someone. “Bottomfeeder” is more minimalist, a synth- and piano-driven song with a subtle but unmistakeable strut that makes it addictive. It breaks halfway through for a country-tinged guitar solo that slides and swoops while the beat stays cool and sharp. Palmer’s imperfect voice is particularly beautifully showcased here, catching on the jagged edges of larger intervals and quivering with emotion. The mix even works well when all the instruments rise in volume and intensity and her voice is swathed in echo, overdubs, and noise.
Reverting back to Dresden Dolls and vintage AFP territory, “The Bed Song” is old-fashioned and terribly sad. The piano part sounds like sun, filtered through clouds and dusty curtains, into a bedroom with a hardwood floor. Palmer’s voice inhabits the story, becoming sweeter and softer or darker and bitterer as each scene dictates. The scenes progress from content and happy to hopeless and confused while the corresponding beds move from tiny and filthy to luxurious and overlarge to six feet under and topped by headstones. It is fraught with feelings, many of them contradictory, but it stays away from sentimentality with its fixation on honesty and reality. “Melody Dean” is, in Palmer’s words, “my first out and proud song about being bisexual” and it’s breathtaking. It’s a tale of being caught under someone’s thumb and revolting against that with every fibre in your being except the part that actually makes you cheat. When she’s not shrieking about her sexuality (“I like to spread her out on different crackers, yeah, I like the way she looks”) Palmer becomes more solemn, repeating “I get torn to pieces for the stupidest reasons.” Perhaps strangely, my favourite bit is immediately after the first refrain, when the punky guitar is replaced by a buoyant classical-influenced synthesizer that tumbles through an interlude and is shortly joined by blindingly bright horns. It is magnificent.
“Berlin” is full-on melodramatic piano wallowing. It starts slowly and poignantly but in the second part becomes full and stomping and resentful. Palmer shouts “WHAT?” as the song then becomes an exquisite cabaret finale, swaggering so heavily that it has no choice but to return to the heartbreak of the opening. It cries into its own arms in the rain. “Olly Olly Oxen Free” reverses all of those things and instead wallows in joy, freedom, and letting go. She sings “olly olly oxen free, all the people you will never be, see no evil, hear no evil, capture me and throw the key away” like it’s a manifesto, and it really is. Art doesn’t have to kill you. Art doesn’t have to be serious. Art doesn’t really matter that much if doing it makes you miserable. Art is about pleasure and joy and sharing things and confidence and bringing people together. This is sometimes explicitly stated but largely between the lines of every single note and word on this record. It really couldn’t have been expressed better.
*A quick and nerdy note on the album’s title: when Palmer announced the title on twitter, fans from all over the world were quick to query as to whether the word ‘theatre’ would be spelled the American way or the British/Canadian way. A twitter poll was quickly dispatched to help answer this question, and it seems the answers and final decision are rather evident from Theatre Is Evil’s title. This makes me even more glad than I’m willing to admit, and I’m willing to admit quite a bit.
I’m so happy that The Thick of It is back for another series. It’s one of the best shows on television, and from what I know of public relations (I had to take some courses for the communications program I was in), it’s fairly accurate in all its absurd logic. I love the grasping cast of always pathetic, occasionally sympathetic, characters, who usually end up racing down a corridor in an ungainly fashion to save their own careers. I love the barrage of ruthless, soul-destroying insults amidst the landmine of f-bombs and twisted mind games. And of course, I love the watery-eyed sociopath, Malcolm Tucker, the Alistair Campbell of Armando Ianucci’s carefully crafted circles of hell.
One of my favourite scenes for this series is during a brainstorming session for a name for good everyday citizens:
Ollie Reeder: You know, the people who deal with the little stuff… um… Wombles, Honest Wombles. Everyday Wombles?
Malcolm Tucker: Sorry, I’ve just got to take a call…
Nicola Murray: Um, ‘straights’ –
Nicola: No… no, of course, sorry.
Helen: Commuting champions.
Nicola: Interrailers, human interrailers.
Ollie: Human interrailers? That’s interrailers. Uh, everyday superstars, all… all British supremes –
Malcolm: That sounds like a racist tribute band.
Nicola: Ordinary people, with s-… with… something special about them. With a special power.
Ollie: Please don’t say special. Don’t say special.
Nicola: No but – you know, but like sup… uh… people as superheroes.
Ollie: Iron People… Spider People –
Nicola: They’re just regular citizens, but they have this… p – that one special quality that makes them like Batman, Batpeople. Um… Quiet Batpeople.
Malcolm: [Glaring] Quiet Batpeople?
In honour of this brilliant piece of satirical television, I’ve made a mix of “spin” songs. I could never do the show justice with a description, so I’ll just include this handy YouTube video compilation of the various nicknames bestowed upon the characters.
Download Myxomatosis #15.
Planned Obsolescence and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Shut Up and Play the Hits and the Story of LCD Soundsystem
After seeing the LCD Soundsystem documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits for the first time in the dark of Cinematheque last week, I can see why audiences at SXSW danced in the aisles and applauded each concert segment. The Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern film, which records James Murphy and Co.’s last performance at Madison Square Garden in 2011, utilizes the immensity of sound and camera shots to immerse you so deeply in the music that you forget you’re not actually at a live show. You feel every slow motion bounce and crush of the crowd and every shake of atomized perspiration from the band and fans alike. LCD Soundsystem’s signature locked grooves become deliciously long dance parties as the band rocks and hustles in equal measure. The film even captures that numb moment that comes after a monumental gig where you can barely move your adrenaline-drained legs, blinking in the house lights made hazy by the last vestiges of dry ice drifting to the rafters like the gunsmoke of a particularly intense battle, or the incense in a particularly mind-altering ritual. Despite the mesmerizing atmosphere of this footage, the film captures something else quite specific to LCD Soundsystem. When Murphy’s hands come down to instigate the descent of a giant disco ball for “Us V. Them,” his face is filled with a beatific satisfaction that somehow mocks its own self-assured performance. It’s as if he cannot let himself get too earnest about the enormity of the event he’s created. It’s like he’s thinking about how much he’s orchestrated this. It’s a show, and a documentary for that matter, that draws attention to its own obviousness and intentions.
A pre-farewell Chuck Klosterman interview provides a thematic framework for the film as it is interspersed between concert performances and over the scenes of Murphy’s post-LCD Soundsystem mundanity, adding meaning and depth to scenes of Murphy shaving, making coffee, rolling about on his swivel chair, staring out windows, and walking his French bulldog. Offstage, Murphy’s spectrum of emotions seems to be comprised of wry, bemused, or asleep. These down moments provide a contrast that makes the concert portions buzz with a preternatural quality. The continuous rise and fall of the energy heightens the effect of both moods whilst commenting on its own meta-state. At the beginning of the interview, there’s a great moment of doubling self-awareness: when Klosterman asks if it’s okay if he records this interview, Murphy replies with “sure, do you mind if I record this interview?” The film has been most often compared with The Band’s The Last Waltz, but this final recorded performance can also be seen as the death of Ziggy Stardust without the loophole. At one point in the interview, Murphy does mention Bowie as an untouchable idol, whilst casting himself as the everyman, greying anti-hero. Klosterman interjects by saying that Murphy has become an idol in spite of, and perhaps just as much because of, his commonplace, unglamourous image. His is still a performance, which I think attracts just as much scrutiny to itself as Bowie’s satin and tat. Klosterman quite rightly points out Murphy’s most prominent characteristic: self-consciousness.
The LCD Soundsystem oeuvre is dominated by the meaninglessness of repetition in the postmodern condition or the self-aware ennui and pose of New York City parties. The idea behind this last performance and its deliberate self-documentation isn’t that far away from a Flickr stream of ironic Polaroids. From penning the so-called hipster anthem “Losing My Edge,” to raiding older musical references in the manner of a one-man cultural capital bazaar, to creating a “pretentious version” of “Yeah,” to receiving a full discography analysis by Pitchfork, LCD Soundsystem is of the early-twenty-first-century hipster moment. Some may argue that the seppuku of LCD Soundsystem coincides with the “death of the hipster.” However and whenever the hipster may or may not die, it seemed to be born in the socioeconomic and cultural stew, which includes the rise of the so-called “creative class” of a late capitalism running on its own fumes, the dissatisfied middle class’s realization of its own stagnation and uncertain footing at the turn of the millennium, and the exhausting infinite present in the Internet age of globalized connectivity. The hipster is a hyper-controlled performance of supposedly empty signifiers, Baudrillardian simulacra in impossibly tight, ultimately impotent, trousers. The hipster is self-aware, building an artificial authenticity or an authentic artifice in an attempt to preclude taste judgements and clichés that move at the speed of light. In the accelerated proving of credentials, hipsters eat themselves as much as pop does. They are part of a self-defeating identity group that fosters belonging by denying belonging to the group. In recognizing hipsters, you are somehow already implicated in their miasmic stigma. What happens when you ironize arguably the most ironic subculture? James Murphy has come to embody the anti-hipster hipster, or an aging hipster, which seems automatically to negate hipsterdom, in which novelty and youth are its defining qualities, even if the novelty is nearly always filtered through retro lenses. Murphy and his band concept are a hipster paradox. He is ironic about pretension and knowing about his knowingness. His seemingly ironic detachment appears to come from a seen-it-all-before world weariness because he is actually older, not because he could Google everything on a phone. I think it’s too easy to apply the hipster tag, which gets bandied about a fair bit; however, I’m starting to think that the dissonance I feel about LCD Soundsystem, and by extension, Shut Up and Play the Hits, is related to Murphy’s ethos, which allows for the simultaneous existence of the romantic nostalgia of the person who thinks too much and the cynical retro of the hipster who has access to too much. He creates music infused with timelessness and faddishness, two sides of the same youth ideology.
That tension is perhaps the magic of the film and the LCD Soundsystem story: mythologizing the demythologizing. You can view Murphy in a context other than hipsterdom, including the power of music fandom. Focused, meticulous people are also often the most obsessive-compulsive fans/critics; think of some of Murphy’s musical heroes, like David Bowie and The Smiths, who were also scrupulously controlled in their performances, images, and artistic “packages.” Murphy is musically referential as Morrissey was lyrically referential, retaining a fastidious interest in presentation down to the Hatful of Hollow blue used on the cover of This Is Happening. Murphy is a compelling performer in his own idiosyncratic right. The concert footage of Shut Up and Play the Hits reminded me just how much I love his sardonic half-talking bits and his wild, desperate yelps that become frantic leaps into hysterical falsetto. I couldn’t keep my legs from bouncing during the “Homosapien”-aping “North American Scum,” which featured back-up shout-chanting from members of The Arcade Fire, and the infinite rock-out of LCD Soundsystem’s cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” melted me into my movie theatre chair. On the related flipside to scenester party anthems like these, the live entity of LCD Soundsystem brings the same ardent presence to the low-key melancholy. As I feel both the anxiety and relief of aging and mortality myself, I’m particularly drawn to these songs along with Murphy’s comments in the film about his fears and needs as time moves on. The bittersweetness that pervades songs like “All My Friends,” “Someone Great,” and concert-closer “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” is connected to a sense of loss and the relentlessness of time. “All My Friends,” which creates one of the biggest moments of the documentary, takes the insistent piano of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and strings it out into a nostalgic middle-age wasteland that is both triumphant and tired.
The crux of the film comes close to the end of the Klosterman interview. He posits that people are remembered for their successes but defined by their failures, and pushes Murphy to articulate what LCD Soundsystem’s biggest failure will be. After much evasion, it transpires that Murphy thinks their biggest failure may be stopping. In that admission, he turns his canny preclusion into wistful heartbreak.
As Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” kicks in at the credits, I couldn’t help but smile at how even this choice was perfectly orchestrated. The song is at once so terribly funny and so terribly sad, which seems to sum up Murphy’s persona quite neatly. It’s a self-fulfilling failure narrative and pre-emptive break-up strike with those brilliant synth honks that sound like a clown’s nose. The theme of borrowed time and planned beginnings and endings is more than apt for the LCD Soundsystem story: “This is one scene that’s going to be played my way.” At the same time, it’s worth bearing in mind that Klosterman has already articulated the fact James Murphy can’t completely control others’ perception and level of engagement with what he does. In the end, perhaps in spite of Murphy’s attempts at detachment, LCD Soundsystem was clearly not a meaningless pose. If only because of that weeping teenage boy in the last shot of the film. Shut Up and Play the Hits shows that you can actually dance yourself clean notwithstanding the elision of vowels in hipster electronic vernacular. This is not a film for aloof head bobbing. Murphy and his backing band played the hits and they spoke louder than the best laid plans.
The Shut Up and Play the Hits DVD set is available on October 9.