Cattle - Somehow Hear Songs

15 June 2022  •  Filed under

2015’s Somehow Hear Songs is the debut EP from Tokyo band Cattle. This whole thing is vibrating with the buzzsaw guitar, copious feedback, and swirling ambience that are immediately reminiscent of shoegaze legends like My Bloody Valentine and Ringo Deathstarr. And that’s okay—I don’t mind a good imitation band, especially if they really understand what makes their influences great.

All six songs are unskippable, crushing and soothing at every turn, but the two closing track are my favorites. “Blue Star” couches pretty vocals in impregnable wall-of-sound guitars; “Birth” soars with untold layers of twinkling and droning guitars. Shoegaze at its finest.


Fennel - slow down

18 May 2022  •  Filed under

Last year, I stumbled across BAND-MAID, a Japanese rock band. It was another breath of fresh air into the sails of my unfurling musical renaissance, and I really enjoyed watching their live performance videos. I listened to some of their albums, but nothing really grabbed onto me as tightly as those few videos.

Intrigued, I’ve kept poking around YouTube for more Japanese bands, and found quite a few that I’ll probably write about. One of those is Regal Lily, whose song “GOLD TRAIN” totally blew me away. Their musical style matches up more with what I listen to on the regular, and my incessant playback of that music video tuned the algorithm to other artists that slot into my particular indie pop/rock, shoegaze, & post-rock tastes.

Consequently, I recently discovered slow down, and it’s a really great record. It’s the solo project of Sagane Hiromi, who is also the bass player for venerated math-rock band Tricot. Under the moniker Fennel, Hiromi makes catchy indie rock reminiscent of early 90s college rock bands like The Lemonheads, Blake Babies, and Letters to Cleo.

There’s a good variety of vibes on this mini-album. Opener “drunker” appropriately rides a loose, serpentine, R.E.M.-adjacent riff, while “Sunday” is an energetic banger full of crashing drums à la Letters to Cleo. Naturally, most of the lyrics are sung in Japanese, but there are a few earnest explosions of English, like on the closer “You and I”. Personally, I enjoy listening to Japanese lyrics; not being able to understand the words is kind of a relief and emphasizes the vocals as more of the instrument that they are.

Anyways, I highly recommend this album, especially if you’re into those early 90s influences. Coming from a bass player, I’d expect the rhythm section to be strong, but the guitar work and vocal melodies are also really good. It’s prime spring/summer energy.

Slow down.


Dear Robert Smith

21 April 2022  •  Filed under ,

Legend.

I was 16 when I discovered The Cure.

The church dances I felt obligated to attend as a teenager were torturous. Though I am still plenty introverted as an adult, I was positively reclusive as a teen. There were girls there, and I did like music, so maybe I was more enticed than obligated. At any rate, I wanted to enjoy going to these things, but really didn’t. All I felt was a mountain of anxiety, sitting at the back of the darkest half of the gymnasium. Alone, I listened.

The music was usually the same uninspired Top 40 fare every time. Not all bad, but spotty. This night, though, was different. The kids never got to control the equipment, but we could make requests. I’m not sure if it was the DJ’s choices or someone whispering in their ear, but they started playing music I’d never heard before. It sounded sophisticated and exciting and slightly weird, and it really spoke to me. One song in particular came on with the final words “just like heaven”, and it really made an impression on me. The sound of the guitar, the pretty tune, the unusual voice, the painterly lyrics—what poetry was this? Who was this? Above the music, I heard some kids nearby talk about “the cure”. I repeated it to myself so I wouldn’t forget.

The next chance I had—maybe it was the next day, or the next week—I walked to the store near my house that I knew had music. The “C” section was stuffed with cassette tapes for The Cure, but none of them had any song with “heaven” in the title. No, this album was called Disintegration, and its cover was a very pale face floating beneath a sea of gauzy flowers. Thinking that I had maybe misconstrued the name of the song at the dance, and being intrigued by this very artistic album cover, I bought it and hoped for the best.

It was sadness made beautiful.

Laying on my bed back home, the new cassette tape hissing quietly, I listened with anticipation to the sound of chimes ringing in the wind, gently trailing off into silence. If you know this album, you know what comes next. “Plainsong” was a wholly unexpected explosion of orchestral synths and silky guitars. Even through what were surely terrible headphones, the music was enthralling. It was like nothing I had ever listened to before; the music seemed to play forever before anyone started singing. And when the singing started, it was no “Just Like Heaven”, but it was unquestionably the same voice. Like that song I had heard at the dance, he sounded melancholy, and so did the words. It spoke so immediately to my 16 year old heart that I could hardly believe it. It was sadness made beautiful.

My parents ever understood why I loved this album so much. Why I wrote the lyrics of “Prayers for Rain” on my school notebook and wore a Disintegration t-shirt to school way too many days in a row. One night we had family “music appreciation” where we all played a song that we enjoyed. About 2 minutes into “Plainsong”, their patience ran out and one of them asked “When is the song going to start? Is this it?” I was seriously annoyed, but this music wasn’t for them. It was mine. I knew what it was and why it was great.

It’s no understatement to say that Disintegration is the most influential album I’ve ever listened to. From that moment, I started getting adventurous about seeking out left-of-center artists, looking at more obscure music magazines for other bands that looked different or were identified as Cure-adjacent, and quickly shifted my entire focus to what are now known as all-time classic 80s alternative bands like New Order, Depeche Mode, The Sundays, Pet Shop Boys, and The Smiths, plus emerging bands like Cocteau Twins and Lush (and, naturally, The Cure’s whole back catalog). I filled every available minute of my life listening to all of it.

The 90s weren’t far away. It wouldn’t be long until grunge exploded, and I would fold a lot of that music into my collection, too. But I listened to The Cure pretty heavily for a good stretch of the 90s, and—to this day—there’s no question that a lot of what I enjoy listening to tracks back in one way or another to The Cure and, specifically, to Disintegration.

The album is a touchstone for many, many people, so my experience is not necessarily unique, but it is mine. I really don’t know if I would love music as much as I do, or have felt the compulsion to venture out into alternative musical veins, if it wasn’t for Disintegration. I know that this album embodies a very difficult time, and I can’t imagine that it was easy to write. But, it showed me that men could be—all at once—colorful, moody, expressive, unusual, sensitive, and emotional. It gave me new sounds, new perspective, new avenues, and a new vocabulary for expression.

A new me.

Thank you, Robert.

(And happy birthday.)


Baumgartner Restoration

12 April 2022  •  Filed under

I tend to watch a lot of shows focused around craftsmanship. This Old House scratches that mastery-level home renovation itch, and of course there are dozens of other remodeling and interior design shows to choose from, like perennial favorite Fixer Upper. I’ve been drooling over For The Love of Kitchens, a series that showcases the charmingly-crafted DeVol kitchen designs out of the UK. I also watch the amazing Garden Answer on YouTube for landscape & gardening inspo.

I didn’t realize there was yet another craftsmanship interest waiting to be discovered.

Julian Baumgartner is a fine art conservator and YouTuber with a whopping 1.65 million subscribers. His channel was just one of many that I discovered during the pandemic, and I’ll watch every video that he puts out.

The videos are relatively formulaic, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting—at least not yet. He’ll receive a painting in some state of disrepair, and begin the work of staunching the wounds. Many paintings need to be stabilized before any work can be done, which often involves facing the painting with washi kozo paper and a removable glue (oh boy, was that nerve wracking the first time I saw it!). Then it’s on to scraping off layers of canvas, flattening the painting on the heat/vaccuum table that he build himself (respect!), removing old varnish, filling voids, and retouching. Sometimes there are such grievous amounts of strange damage that Julian will have to construct a bespoke tool to correct a problem. It’s pretty impressive.

It’s a fascinating look at the craft, and Julian’s voice over as he works is both educational and entertaining. It’s also a little ASMR-esque, because the work is often so detailed and repetitive. Like many other craft-focused shows, this one is also highly satisfying; seeing the final transformation of the artwork from ragged to pristine is always surprising.

It was hard to pick out my favorite video, but the one above is a sound contender. It’s Part 1 of restoring an especially damaged painting believed to be from the 1400s. No pressure.


Sparks

23 March 2022  •  Filed under ,

The summer of 1997 was a turning point. After wandering down various roads, unsure of what I was supposed to do with my life, I had recently finished all the college I was willing to take. Hopeful that my aptitude for a newfound love of 3D modeling and animation was enough, I had applied for a job with the only gaming company that I knew of in my home state of Texas: id Software, makers of such classics as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.

I never heard back, but something else happened that summer that changed my life forever.

I still hung out with my best friend from high school on occasion, and one day he called me, excited, to tell me about these guys he had met that were building a “virtual internet” and looking for someone with 3D skills to help them out. Now, I had obviously heard of the internet, but hadn’t really used it beyond the rote research effort for school. So it wasn’t the “internet” part of “virtual internet” that excited me—it was the “virtual” part.

A bit of an explanation may be in order. In the mid-90s, there were some really visual websites starting to pop up, but much of the internet was still very dry, text-based websites. The idea of a virtual internet centered around the idea that interacting with internet content could be more like navigating the physical world. Years later, Second Life would realize some of that vision, creating a 3D video game-like environment full of user-created avatars that could interact with each other and travel to areas of the Second Life world to visit other users, chat, or whatever. Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse is basically the same thing, but you have to wear swim goggles to use it. Also, NFTs! Good luck, buddy.

The optimism with these guys was infectious, though. I ended up hanging around their office quite a bit, sketching character ideas and environments and watching them map out this ambitious idea. It’s a well-established startup trope now, but nothing I made ever saw the light of day, because these guys spent more time rollerblading in the parking lot and playing Quake on the projector in the conference room than working. One day, I came by and they were moving out because the money was all gone. Looking back, that’s hilarious, but it was really deflating at the time.

But—like so many times in life—this chance encounter sparked a new interest, this time in the internet proper. I spent the next couple years learning Flash, HTML, and (eventually), CSS. I built fansites for The X-Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Angel, both for myself and for other “webmasters”, as well as dozens of versions of what would eventually become this website. And all of that investment paid off: first in an internship at a small web design agency, then a full-time job at a slightly larger one, then another huge change in moving to a different city to work in the completely different world of enterprise web applications.

There’s absolutely a lot of dumb luck to this story, but I often think about this and other moments in life where I scraped against something unexpected, and a spark was created. What would life be like if I hadn’t caught that spark and used it to light something much bigger?


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© Jared Christensen

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